The Iceland Epic – Day 8 (Reykjavik – Akureyri – Myvatn)

dimmuborgir wandering justin
Wandering Justin gets all black metal at Dimmuborgir.

Can a cloud of flies lift a person off the ground? I am about to find out on the south shore of Myvatn (Mee-VAH-ten).

That name, by the way, means business. Vatn is Icelandic for "water." What’s "my?" Midge. As in those pesky flies that are threatening to carry me off. They’re everywhere. This means we are in a place that means "Fly Water." Myvatn is a shallow lake ringed by some spectacular scenery: more pseudocraters, and one of the most bizarre mountains ever. More on that later.

As for the flies, some folks at a convenience store sold Sarah and me a lovely matched set of insect nets for our heads and faces. Problem abated. Somewhat.

Suzuki Jimney
Our rented Suzuki Jimney

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Flight to Iceland’s Northern Big City

To get here, we started with an early Flug Island (or Air Iceland, the domestic arm of IcelandAir) flight from Reykjavik’s domestic airport. We walked from our guesthouse right to the terminal. Our fellow passengers were mostly English, and they were dressed from some horse-riding fun.

We landed in Akureyri, the main city of northern Iceland. We rented a Suzuki Jimny and rattled off to the west. We had some epic mountain scenery, and we enjoyed a brief stop at a waterfall. We made another brief stop to get our anti-fly nets – and had a nice lunch of soup and trout that had been smoked over sheep dung. Regardless of the fuel source, it was delicious.

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One of Iceland's many waterfalls.

We followed that up with a 45-minute hike around the pseudocraters.

And then for a major centerpiece of my Iceland experience: We headed for Dimmuborgir.

But before we got near Dimmuborgir, I noticed something strange: One single mountain that seemed illuminated. It was an overcast day, and it was like one single ray of sunshine penetrated the clouds and fixed on this mountain. This is the Hverir thermal area. It stands out from all the surrounding terrain. We plan to make a thorough visit tomorrow.

This is also the name of well-known black metal band, and it means "Dark Castle." This region gets this name from the massive expanse of hardened lava that froze in all sorts of interesting shapes. It sprawls for quite a distance. There are massive spires, tiny lava tubes, holes -- it’s too unearthly to really describe well. It’s stark and scorched, and completely engrossing.

Hverfjall: As Cool as it Sounds

If you’re up for a long hike, you can follow a trail and climb to the top of Hverfjall explosion crater. Sarah and I circled the base, climbed from the (easier) northern trail, fully circled the rim, and descended the south trail before heading back to Dimmuborgir. Total distance is a little more than 6 miles.

pseudocrater
Part of the pseudocrater field near Myvatn

Relaxation, Trout and Stout

By this point, we were a little peckish. We’d heard about the Cowshed Cafe, so we stopped. It’s a working dairy in addition to a restaurant. You can eat while watching cows get milked.

As we were eating more trout, a salad and some fresh geysir bread, one of the cafe staff made the rounds to all the tables to pass out little cups. They were filled with fresh, unpasteurized milk straight out of the teat of the cow getting milked.

Warm, creamy, frothy -- but not as heavy as I expected. A clean finish!

Our next step was a little relaxation at the town pool (we were in ReykjahliÄ‘). Despite this being a town of 300, the pool facilities are superior to what you’ll find in my city of some 1.4 million people. Hot tubs, weight rooms, lap lanes -- nice!

From there, we headed to the Vogar campgrounds. We put our tent up on the northern shore of Myvatn. Here on the north side, the midges are considerably less active. Once we had the tent up, we wandered the main street a bit and met some of the local horses.

Hverfjall Iceland
Looking toward the huge crater of Hverfjall

We also wrapped up the day’s gustation with a nice chocolate cake and a shared bottle of Lava. This is an imperial-style stout brewed in the south of Iceland. It was the only good beer we found in Iceland, and it was the equal of just about any microbrew from the United States. I’d say it is on par with the Oskar Blues Ten Fiddy of Longmont, Colo.

Snoozing by Myvatn

After all this buzzing around, we were pretty tired. Though the sun only peaked below the horizon for a few hours and the sky never fully darkened, we got a great night of sleep on the soft grass of the Vogar.

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Lava formations at Dimmuborgir.
wandering justin hverfjall iceland
Atop Hverfjall
dimmuborgir iceland wandering justin
Looking south to Dimmuborgir
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Looking toward Myvatn.
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Our tent is right on the shore of Myvatn at Vogar campground.

The Iceland Viking Festival and Reykjavik Wanderings

Icelandic kids battle it out at the Viking Festival

This would so never happen in America, I thought. Nope, I just can’t see anywhere in my country where pre-adolescent boys would be allowed to gleefully flail at each other with wooden swords and shields – all while parents smiled and took videos.

That’s the Viking Festival in Iceland for you, though. Every summer, the festival runs just south of Reykjavik in Hafnarfjordur. There, you can eat a freshly roasted sheep. Try your hand at throwing axes. Watch Viking battle re-enactments. Stay at the Viking Hotel (one of the funkiest hotels in Iceland)

Believe it or not, all the kids emerged unscathed from the Viking Festival. They all wore huge grins after their designated mock combat. I had as much fun watching them as they did swinging wooden swords and axes.

Volcanic ash hangs in the air.

Our day started in Vik, several hours southeast (read about the previous day in Vik).

 

Volcanoes and Viking Kitsch

Wandering Justin hurls an axe at a target

During the bus ride to Reykjavik, we passed the volcano that put Iceland in the news – and hemmed in air travel to and from Europe. Unfortunately, we could see little of Eyjafjallajökull. Mostly, we could see the lower slopes of a mountain and dingy air. The bus driver didn’t even stop, though we saw other people snapping photos.

A few hours later, we were in Reykjavik. Our first stop was checking into a room at the Guesthouse Isafold. We liked it so much we made it our base for every night we’d me in Reykjavik.

From there, we navigated the bus system to Hafnarfjordur – and the Viking Festival. It was our first major experience with greater Reykjavik’s bus system. Impressions? Clean and punctual.

Tending a roasting sheep.

Once we’d gotten our fill of Viking kitsch, we wandered the streets a bit. That’s how we discovered Kaffihus Suffistin and probably the best chocolate-coconut cake you’ll ever eat. We also spent some time wandering the nearby neighborhoods – one city park was built on a an ancient lava flow, with giant volcanic cinders forming a mazelike system of nooks and crannies.

Iceland’s Fish is For-Real

By the time we finishes walking and headed back downtown, we were hungry. We found Icelandic Fish & Chips in all the guidebooks. And for good reason. The restaurant gets fresh fish daily. You can get it prepared a few different ways, with a number of different sides and toppings. The toppings are made from skyr, the Icelandic dairy product most people think is yogurt. But really, it’s closer to cheese. It’s nearly fat-free and full of protein

Sarah meets the modern-day Vikings

If you go looking for skyr at a grocery store in the U.S., I hate to inform you – it doesn’t taste like the stuff in Iceland, and it’s about triple the price. The Icelandic variety has no trace of sourness. Anyway, this is not only a popular snack, but the base for the sauces that come with the fish.

Here’s how it works: You come in, select a table and get a menu. When you’re ready, you go to the counter and order. The staff brings your food out a bit later, and you chow down on some wonderfully fresh, non-greasy fish. The batter is made from spelt and barley, and the chips are oven-roasted potatoes.

Watching the World Cup in a Soccer Nation

A lava flow/park near the Viking Festival

After a nice feed, we walked more. Though we’d passed Cafe Rot during our first day, we never dropped in. This time we did, seeking refuge from the rain along with a hot drink. I soon discovered a passage to a basement where the World Cup match was about to start. Sarah and I enjoyed the match, along with the company of people from England and various Middle Eastern countries. Germany’s Mesut Ozil was having his breakout performance. And the other guys were determined to make me a believer in Iceland’s popular malt soda, Maltextrakt. It might not be bad with some hops added to it and a few months of fermentation time!

That was pretty much it, except for a bit of souvenir shopping.

Coming tomorrow: A flight over the Iceland’s interior to Akureyri and Myvatn.

A few of more than 50 kids slugging it out. And peep that mullet on the far right!