If you insist on going to Iceland in the middle of winter, and if you insist upon renting a car, it helps to be aware of local weather and road conditions at all times. I came across this absolutely brilliant and indispensable website that provided regularly updated road conditions. Every hotel we stayed in had some sort of Internet access, so we were able to check it before heading out the next day.

Now this begs to question: Why does the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania suck? Okay, let me be more specific: how is it that a state, like Pennsylvania, the same size as Iceland, can not put its tax dollars towards something useful, like say, reporting road conditions on the internet and staying the hell out of the sale of alcohol? Okay, I know, another topic for another time.

So we headed out of Reykholt the next morning. It was slightly overcast at the time which was a shame as the Eriksjokull glacier is supposed to be visible from the hotel on clear days. Also, further east of Reykholt are the waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, also known as the “Lava Falls” and “Children’s Falls”. I desperately wanted to see them as I love waterfalls in the winter, but based on the road conditions we saw reported, we regrettably didn’t make it out to them since we would be zig-zagging our way north and would wanted to make sure we had enough time to accomplish the day’s plan.

Here is where I’m going to insert another valuable traveling trip when exploring Iceland in the winter: those red lines on maps marking main roads? Stay on them. I know those and gray and black lines of secondary roads may seem dashing and adventurous, but trust me, they’re bad boyfriends in the making. While you’ll enjoy the thrill of danger, they will put you through hell, steal your gas money, and you’ll never know where you stand with them. Trust me on this, it’s simply best not to get involved.

The new game plan was to head west back towards to the coast and then north to visit Eriksstadir, the turf house thought to be home of Erik the Red, and then further north to the Laxardalur Valley. After heading west to catch the soon to be infamous Highway 60, we had the pleasant surprise of coming across the town of Bifrost. Sadly, it was not the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard to Asgard and hence, no mingling with the Old Gods for us.

*as always, double cliking the pictures will enlarge them.

hgy-60.jpgTo go north at this point, you have traverse Highway 60, which in the summer, I am sure is spectacularly beautiful, much like the Gap of Dunloe in Ireland, but in the winter, with slightly icy road conditions, it exists for no other reason than to scare the ever livin’ crap out of unsuspecting travelers. This does not mean I regret our choice of rental car. To the contrary, our Ford Focus served extremely well. It’s just that the velocity with which the arctic winds tear through the country, they are enough to lift any car like a paper-thin kite and send you hurtling to your death around bends of the road that lack a proper guard rail. And there are many such roads. This is what I would call a potential opportunity for a White Death. White people, in a white car, landing in a ravine, covered in snow, lying undetected until the spring thaw. The only thing I wished for in this case was the car at least be a color that screams “Hey! Idiot tourists trapped down here in the ravine!”

eiriksstadir1.jpgHighway 60 dead ends into Hvammsfjordur and from there we ping-pong back east, again, down into the valley of Haukadalur towards the historical home site of Erik the Red, you know, the guy largely regarded for the founding of Greenland. The ruins of Eiriksstadir was discovered in 1997 and a reconstruction of the turf house is built in front of the ruins. Obviously, it is not open during the winter months. I was anxious to see it, since being Irish, and given Ireland’s and Iceland’s intermingled history, I was keen to see the differences and similarities between their turf-home building practices.

eirik-door.jpgYou have to drive deep into the valley to get to the site and the waterway accompanies you through most of it, but once the water ends, look to your left and there you go. I can be as dorky and sentimental as the next person, so I have to admit it is was no small thrill to see this house. If you are not up on your history, Erik the Red was the father of Leif Eirikson, otherwise known as the real first European to set foot in North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus (who visited Iceland by the way, where do you think he got the idea from?).

leif-statue.jpgI understand that during the summer months, there are interpreters in traditional clothing, festivals, and the like, but in the winter, you have little more than an interpretive board written in a number of different languages and a rather Puckish statue of Leif pointedly ignoring you. I was surprised by the statue in that any representation of Vikings that we had seen to date were very He-Man looking and this statue is so effeminate. This seemed oddly out of character of man who braved the North Atlantic and linked Europe to the North American continent. I might have been a little low in the blood sugar at this point, but I half expected this statue to leap to the ground and start performing show tunes.

Out of the valley, back towards the coast, north a little ways, swing another right and we head into the Laxardarlur Valley. Not much to look at here in the winter, but we drove through none the less as it is a site of the Laxdaela Saga, the prime story being a tragic love triangle between the beautiful Gudrun and two brothers , Bolli and Kjartan. It is also the one saga, I believe, that is suspected of being written by woman. Any sites worth seeing were buried under the snow, so we took a leisurely drive since the sky had cleared and the sun was shining.

horse-background.jpgAs we were exiting the valley, we came upon a heard of Icelandic horses grazing in the pasture. We pulled over to view what was such a post-card picture moment. Horses in the pasture, open waters of the fjord in the background, and the Snaefellsnes mountain range looming in the horizon. As I’ve written before, the Icelandic horse has not changed in over 1200 years. Quite literally, they are the exact same horse the Vikings brought to Iceland and have not been bred with any other strain of horse. They are sturdy little guys with a remarkably smooth gait and are darn handsome to boot. Sailor Man got out of the car to take a picture and immediately all the horses in the pasture came out to greet him. They ran at the sight of me, I think the red hair spooks them.

sailor-and-horses.jpgDuring the summer months, you can find horse back riding establishments all throughout the country. Sailor Man and I have decided that our next trip to Iceland is going to be sometime during the summer (Shock! Recoil! Disbelief!) when we can take advantage of a trek through the heart of Iceland via horseback.

It was at this point that we decided to head into the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Now since Iceland is volcanically formed and glacially carved, there are few roads that will take you through a mountain range. What you get instead, are winding roads that go deep into the fjords and right back out again. You swing around the peak and right back into another fjord. It’s a little disconcerting at first because the mountains are right on top of you on one side of the road, but being the passenger, I was afforded the luxury of taking in the scenery across the water and hence, stayed off a too-close feeling of claustrophobia.

rock-wall.jpgI know that there’s something in nature that’s not supposed to love a wall, but I’m Irish and I brake for rock walls. All of them. Given the harshness of the climate, you would think that there would be more rock structures in Iceland, but lava rock doesn’t make for the best stacking material and other types of rock suitable for the job seem to be in short supply. Still, a well made wall lining a road side park in the heart of a fjord (and another saga site) is enough for geeks like Sailor Man and I pull over, jump out with camera in hand, and go ooooo and ahhh.

We’re traveling the north road of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and though the sun is still out, we are in the shadows of the mountains which makes for a moody drive. We’re hoping to drive out a neck of land to the town of Stykkisholmur, but we opted to drive westward as the only reason to stop would have been to see sites that were currently inaccessible due to winter road conditions.

It’s really the only frustrating thing about visiting Iceland in the winter, the lack of accessibility to places you want to go. But the trade off is that we drove for hours without passing another vehicle on the road, we could sit in absolute silence with only the noise of the car to intrude, and we could get out of the car at any time and scream “Immigrant Song” at the tops of our lungs in relative peace. Which we did. A lot. For a brief period of time, Sailor Man and I had Iceland all to ourselves.

Next Chapter: Who says you can get lost in Iceland?

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