Category Archives: Iceland

Iceland in Winter: Yay or Nay?

Iceland winter satellite

Iceland in winter. Satellite view from danshort.com

Having just returned from a trip to Iceland in early March, I wondered to myself, should I be recommending the island during the winter months?

What are the considerations to mull over before you decide whether to visit Iceland in winter?

Lack of People

The number of tourists to Iceland is on the increase, rising on average 11% per year since the year 2000. There were 700,000 visitors to the island in 2012, and this is expected to rise to 1 million or more in 2013.

But the thing is, most of them arrive on the island between mid-June and August hoping for good weather.

This means that there are areas that are largely devoid of people – our trip around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula bore that out – we barely saw a person. No – that’s a mistake – we did see two people in a car scoffing sandwiches at the car park near this spot, Hellnar:

Hellnar in Iceland

You can’t see it in this photo but there are thousands of seabirds gathered around these cliffs.

And at the frozen Hraunfossar waterfall …

Hraunfossar Waterfall

… where we were largely on our own, until five mysterious people in matching orange jackets turned up in a gigantic landrover …

Impassible Roads

What any visitor to Iceland in winter must take into account is that they mightn’t get where they want to go.

Although roads are cleared remarkably quickly (we arrived the day after a major snow storm and the roads were largely snow-free, although there was plenty of the white stuff lying by the roadside), if you’re travelling to more isolated parts you mightn’t be as lucky. There is a possibility of being marooned in Reyjkjavik (which isn’t at all a bad thing), or in your hotel.

I do have an anecdote to lay your mind at rest.

After the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, a part of the main ringroad was washed away by flowing lava, leaving a bunch of tourists stuck on one side of the gap with their hire cars, and another bunch of tourists at the other.

The enterprising Icelanders simply ferried each lot of stranded holidaymakers to the opposite side of the road and had them swap over hire cars. Job done!

So if bad weather does hit, you’ll be assured that the authorities will be doing their darnedest to open up the roads.

The Northern Lights

Any sensible person knows not to go to Iceland to see the Northern Lights.

The Iceland skies are notoriously full of cloud and if you travel with the certainty that they’ll clear long enough for you to glimpse this wonderful phenomena, you may be sorely disappointed. But, winter is of course the time of year to see them – they could appear at any time between September and April.

Excitingly, we did see them. We were wakened from a peaceful slumber just after midnight  at the Hraunsnef Country Hotel (much recommended, especially for their farm-fresh meat dinners) to be told the lights were shining.

We were greeted by a clear sky and some not-very-colourful-it-has-to-be-said lights moving and dancing. (Interestingly, although we couldn’t see the fabulous colours we’ve all seen in photographs, they were there in a photo  taken by one of our fellow hotel guests – a beautiful green.) I’m not saying that Northern Lights are normally this pale, it’s just something to be aware of.

And of course, you’ll not get a showing of them at all in Iceland.

Beautiful Landscapes

Ljósufjöll area in Snaefellsnes in winter by Thor Ostensen in Quirky Travel.

Ljósufjöll area in Snaefellsnes in winter by Thor Ostensen

Iceland isn’t as covered in ice as you would think from the name. Sure, there’s a glacier the size of Holland to the South, and a few more scattered around, but it’s not permanently snow and ice-covered in the winter. You may well, however, see some of the white stuff.

If you’ve already been to Iceland outside of the winter months, you’ll know it has the most dramatic and other-worldly landscape possible. Black lava fields, red iron oxide, bright green patches of lichen and the white of the glaciers all contribute to a spectacular view.

In winter, just to add to the beauty, there may well be lots and lots of pure white snow, and that offers a completely different view of the place. Snaefellsnes produces a wonderful vista when blanketed in white (as shown in the photo above.

Summary

Well, yay or nay?

I say go. If you can put up with possible disruption to your plans and you can brave anything when you’re wrapped up against the elements, then go. If you’re not so happy in with cold, wind, rain, grey skies or enforced confinement to your hotel room for short periods, try Lanzarote :o)

10 Christmas Delicacies and Their Traditions

Christmas is a time of traditions seemingly cast in stone and some of them dating from the stone age.

We all indulge in unusual customs that people from elsewhere may mock or jeer. In Sweden, for instance, watching Donald Duck on Christmas Eve is a communal pastime, in the UK we eat sprouts, in Spain they have a defecating nativity figure. And there’s lots more where they came from.

Food is important at times of communal festivity and the choice of food can sometimes be thought-provoking. And of course the traditions attached to that food can sometimes be even more interesting that the grub itself …

Mince pies

Mince pies (telegraph.co.uk)

UK – Mince Pies

These I’m a big fan of but didn’t realise until researching this post the superstitions associated with them. Originally there was real meat in a mince pie and the idea of sweetening the meat idea was brought back from the Middle East by returning crusaders. Not surprising as meat dishes sweetened with icing sugar are still a part Middle Eastern cooking. There are some great traditions that we forget about when pigging out on them at Christmas time (or maybe that’s just me):

  • Superstition number 1: If you eat one mince pie a day between Christmas and 6th January you’ll have happiness for the next 12 months. This is an excellent excuse to eat mince pies.
  • Superstition 2: Always eat them in silence…(?)
  • Superstition number 3: Stir the mixture clockwise because obviously stirring it anticlockwise is as unlucky as tripping over a black cat.
  • Superstition number 4: The cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves represent the gifts bought by the three kings.
  • More a fact than a superstition number 5: Eating mince pies and puddings and generally behaving in a festive way was banned by king of the killjoys, Oliver Cromwell.
KFC Christmas

KFC at Christmas (http://turtlepack.blogspot.co.uk)

Japan – KFC

Even though Japan isn’t a Christian country they love their celebrations and Christmas is one they’ve taken on board: ‘Christmas chicken’ is their Christmas dinner of choice.

Partly because of a lack of ovens big enough to cook turkeys in and partly because of devious marketing efforts by Kentucky Fried Chicken, their branches on Christmas Eve are chock full of revellers and there are often queues out the door.

Chile – Ponche a la romana

An eggnog-style concoction, this consists of champagne and pineapple ice cream. Basically a more expensive ice cream soda and served during the summer months as well as being a Christmas and New Year’s Eve treat. The only reason I’ve added it in here is that I wouldn’t mind trying it.

Romania – Piftie

While a traditional Romanian main course at Christmas consists of standard fare such as pork chops and baked gammon, their appetisers are a tad heart attack-inducing. The piftie is a prime example.

Piftie - pork in aspic

Piftie – pork offal in aspic (http://foodlorists.blogspot.co.uk)

Pigs feet are boiled to make the piftie as there’s a lot of gelatin in the foot. Then garlic and pig offal (head and feet) and sometimes vegetables are added to the liquid in moulds. What you’re left with is a scrummy gelatiny mass of yuck. (Sorry – I’ve a thing about gelatin – can’t eat panna cotta because of it).

Iceland – Fermented Skate

Thorláksmessa (Mass of St Thorlac) falls on 23rd December and it is on this day that the whole of Reykjavík is alive with the smell of ammonia.

Eating fermented skate was traditional in the Western part of the island but has become common throughout Iceland these days. Cooking it with smoked lamb gets rid of some of the smell and it’s served with sheep fat and potatoes to counteract the taste a bit …

The tradition of eating this tasty meal came about as a result of Catholic non-eat-meating in the period coming up to Christmas. And as some parts of the skate are poisonous, fermenting the fish for a while is said to make it less dangerous.

Slovakia – Bread Throwing

A Slovakian Christmas Eve meal is a solemn occasion full of symbolism and superstition. As in many Eastern European Catholic countries, a 12 course vegetarian banquet is eaten which harks back to the 12 apostles.

One course in this Slovakian feast is a tart soup as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery (in the exodus from Egypt bible story); poppy seeds are included in lots of dishes as they’re believed to bring luck; and walnuts are thrown in the corner for the same reason.

My favourite, however, is the custom of soaking local breads or a wheat based dessert called kutia in water, forming it into little balls and chucking it at the ceiling. The more that sticks, the better their crop will be next year. That must take a bit of cleaning up afterwards and presumably it’s only done by people with crops.

Netherlands – Gourmetten

Dutch gourmet cooking

Dutch gourmet cooking (yummydutch.com)

Gourmet at Christmas isn’t the posh food that we would normally associate with it. The host provides meat and vegetables which the guests cook in little frying pans, stove set or grill (the ‘gourmet set’) on the table between them. Pancakes are also made at the table and fruit is provided for dessert.

Greece – Christopsomo

Christopsomo bread

Christopsomo bread (http://roundthetable.net)

Christopsomo (Christ’s bread) is a sweet, buttery bread made carefully and with only the best ingredients. It’s decorated with a Byzantine cross or with symbols representing the cook’s family life, like animals or a family crest. The cross is flavoured with aniseed and the ends of it encircle walnuts. A variation is the Zakinthos version with dried fruits.

Worldwide – Candy canes

Candy canes

Candy canes image (Wikipedia)

The tradition of selling candy canes and decorating trees with them is popular throughout Europe and common in the US. It never featured much in the cornucopia of UK sweet treats but it seems to be appearing more often here as well.

The custom is said to have come about in 1670 when a German choirmaster created these particularly shaped sweets to keep children quiet during long church services. He had the bright idea of asking the local confectioner to shape the candy like a shepherd’s crook to remind the kids of the nativity story.

Island Elf and Fairy Spotting: Isle of Man and Iceland

Cate Blanchett as an Elf Queen

Cate Blanchett as an Elf Queen: very similar to an Icelandic Elf Queen

I used to holiday on the Isle of Man regularly as a child, a quirky island with its own laws, culture, cats (tail-less) and mythology. It’s an island where the belief in fairies and elves, although not so prevalent these days, is still a superstition on show for the tourists. Something seriously bad is bound to happen to you if you fail to greet the “little folk” driving over the Fairy Bridge. Here’s one of them on that very bridge:

Pink fairy on Fairy Bridge, Isle of Man

Fairy on Fairy Bridge, Isle of Man (http://www.fairiesworld.com)

In Iceland, the belief in elves is still alive and well, though whether it’s as widespread as is popularly believed is another question entirely. The last survey carried out on the subject in 2006 produced a figure of 26% of locals stating that they either probably or certainly believe in them. The rest were slightly less sure but only 13% said they definitely didn’t believe in “folk”. This is according to research carried out by Terry Gunnell at the University of Iceland. I do wonder if some of the replies were down the Icelanders’ excellent sense of humour, though.

Elf Cave

Elf cave, Iceland

This quote from  Helgi Hallgrímsson, head of the Icelandic Road Administration gives a clue as to how the belief still presents itself today:

“Sometimes, mediums contact the office nearest to a work site to warn us that elves are living there. They usually offer to act as go-betweens to help things go smoothly. We try to keep everyone happy like when we have to cross a farmer’s field. Sometimes we wait until the elves move on. Such courtesy doesn’t cost the road office much.” (From the Reykjavík Grapevine).

Elf house

Mini elf house

Mini houses, homes for the little people, can still be seen on the island, and it’s said that some married couples employ mediums to check the land round new homes for evidence of elven habitation (mediums obviously earn a nice living on the island – there’s yet another below) .

An educational institute on Iceland with a special interest in huldufólk (literally, secret people) is the Icelandic Elf School. It’s run by one Magnús Skarphéðinsson who has met over 700 people who claim to have had encounters with these shy folk.

The school awards Diplomas in Elves and Hidden people Research Study (there’s a photograph of one on their Facebook page). It’s a half day course if you’re interested in taking it: you’ll find the contact details below.

10 km south of Reykjavik, in Hafnarfjordur, a tour of local elf sites, run by a local clairvoyant, can be booked: it includes a stop at the base of a cliff, Hamarinn, where the Royal Family of the Hidden Folk live. Locals have sighted an elven lady in white wearing a silver belt in the vicinity. I wonder if this tends to happen after late night viewings of Lord of the Rings?

The Information Centre in the same town provides maps of elven homes and the Reykjavik Tourist Office also keeps maps.

Other locations on Iceland have been identified as homes for huldufólk (did you know, there are 13 distinct types and some are gay and lesbian?) In the east of the island is Alfaborg – another residence for the queen of the elves and there are stories of humans ‘communing’ with the elven folk in that area. Apparently human women have actually become pregnant by them …

There’s even a church of elves and a Dwarf’s Rock: see this Elves and Trolls article for more details on those locations.

Obviously, if you fancy a holiday elf-spotting (not forgetting trolls and dwarfs), there’s no better place than Iceland.

Elf School Contact Details

Sidumuli 31, 108 Reykjavik, Iceland

Tel 011-354-894-4014,
Fax 011-354-588-6055
Email mhs@vortex.is

10 Things I love about Reykjavik even though I can’t spell it

Old and new, house of Höfði and office block Reykjavik

It’s not like the word for Iceland’s capital city is as difficult to spell as the one for their recently exploding volcano (Eyjafjallajokull). But still I have to search for it, copy and paste every time I use the word. It’s the y, k and j and scuppers me – sorry Reykjavik.

Anyway, the reason I use the word quite a lot is because after having visited a few years back, I’m obsessed with the place. It’s my spiritual home. And this coming from someone who can’t stand the cold …

Here are some of the things I love about Reykjavik and the surrounding area. (I know there’s more to Iceland – just haven’t seen it yet.)

Crater, Iceland
 

The landscape

If black, red and white is your thing, come to Iceland. The lava-strewn countryside is splashed with other-worldly colour from hardy plants and minerals bravely clinging to life in a not altogether sympathetic climate. Glimpses of steam from the geysers and power station at Þingvellir are a dramatic contrast to the black rock and remind you of the heat and violence going on beneath your very feet.

The Volcano Show

If you’re at all interested in volcanos, give this a go. The cinema is run by Villi Knudsen, who is also the director, star and one of the volcanologists featured in the films (along with his volcanologist father). The films are split into two – if you stay for both you’ll be there for three hours. I saw the two and loved them both.

The first part features most of the largest eruptions up to 2000 (that may have changed since Eyjafjallajokull’s eruption – I visited before it happened). The second focuses on the eruption on Surtsey that caused the birth of Little Surtsey and Christmas island. It also shows the eruption near the little fishing village of Heimaey in 1973. Both are fascinating and one can only admire the dedication of Villi and his father in capturing hours and hours of fantastic footage. He has a lovely dry sense of humour in real life and his films, also.

Colourful Reykjavik
 

The buildings

Corrugated iron is a common material in the buildings of Reykjavik. It protects against the weather and there’s a shortage of wood on the island. However, don’t expect an expanse of grey iron walls. The townspeople have painted their homes in beautiful bright colours that stand out against the grey skies.

The guided walk

When I visited, Iceland was in the throes of economic collapse. While fortunate for me as it was much cheaper to visit than it had been in the past, this was of course a disaster for the residents. My guide on the Reykjavík cultural city walk told us of the dire straits some who had bought houses at the height of a housing boom were in. He’d avoided the problems because he’d been renting as he felt that prices were just too high at the time. Details like this and stories of elves and goblins, or how the President of Iceland is in the phone book, made this free walk a useful way to get to know the city.

Quirky Bjork

The people

A dry sense of humour, kindness, laid-backness and of course, quirkiness: this seems to me to be what Icelanders are about. Our guided walk man mentioned that many of the good things about Iceland and its people have come from Denmark. If this is true, I’ll be visiting Denmark as well!

Mini bus tour

One of the characters I met was the lady who took us in a mini bus on the Grand Circle Tour. (Her company is Iceland Horizons – they provide scheduled tours for smaller groups – up to 16 people.) She gave us a lot of information on the day to day lives of Icelanders, telling us that when she visits relatives in Denmark she and her family have to be reminded to turn off the lights and heating – it’s on all the time in her home in Reykjavík simply because the geothermal heating is so much cheaper.

The weather

I visited in September. It was quite warm in London, and quite cold in Iceland. And as I’ve said, I hate the cold. But I knew what I was in for. I had my waterproof jacket with inner fleece lining sorted. It wasn’t going to bother me. And Reykjavik was so good that it really didn’t!

The sky was grey and there was a persistent drizzle, but the sun did break through one afternoon, and it wasn’t freezing. There is apparently less snow in Iceland than people believe. Of course you have the permanent glaciers, but it doesn’t get cold enough often enough for there to be major amounts of the white stuff.

Fish and chips

Iceland Fish and Chips is an organic restaurant that specialises in fish and chips. The chips are actually hand cut potatoes roasted in olive oil, with rosemary or garlic. There’s a choice of skyronnaises (made with the local skyr, soft cheese) made with ginger and wasabi, mango, or coriander and lime (and more). The fish is fried in a lovely light batter and none of it tastes unhealthy and heavy. However, if you feel you haven’t had the required number of calories, have one of their desserts afterwards – sky with wild berries or carrot cake perhaps?

Blue Lagoon, Iceland

The Blue Lagoon

You’ll have seen photographs of this surreal lagoon, but it’s even better in real life. It’s situated beside a geothermal power plant and volcanic mountains, and the steam from hot water, along with the iridescent blue of the water and white of the minerals around the pools make it gorgeous beyond belief. nfortunately, it was also teaming with tourists.

However, I had a lovely time wandering outside the pool itself and photographing the strange minerals and plants among the rocks, and bought some gorgeous Blue Lagoon algae and mineral body lotion which I’m still eking out!

The smells

The sulphur from all that volcanic energy can be smelt everywhere, what with the preponderence of geothermal springs and suchlike. This mixed with the smells from the fishy ocean and working harbour give it an aroma quite unlike the petrol fumes of London!

The 13 Yule Lads of Iceland

Yule lad stamps

Yule lad stamps (intracore.com)

Mischievous, monstrous or generous? Iceland has 13 equivalents of Santa Claus who appear on separate nights in the lead-up to Christmas. Their origin is in Icelandic folklore, and they were a useful way to keep children in check as they had some quite vile behavioural characteristics.

These days the Yule lads are benevolent, gift-giving little fellas and often appear dressed in a similar way to Santa Claus and can probably be hired for public appearances. All a child has to do to receive a present is leave a shoe on the window sill. If they’ve been bad, mind, they’ll find a potato in that shoe on Christmas morning.

Here’s a cheesey Yule lads video:

What are the names of the Yule Lads?

Here’s a list of the names of Yule Lads, and also when in December each of them put in an appearance. With thanks to Wikipedia

December 12 Stekkjastaur (Sheep-Cote Clod) – Harasses sheep, but is impaired by his stiff peg-legs.

December 13 Giljagaur (Gully Gawk) – Hides in gullies, waiting for an opportunity to sneak into the cowshed and steal milk.

December 14 Stúfur (Stubby) – Abnormally short. Steals pans to eat the crust left on them.

December 15 Þvörusleikir (Spoon-Licker) Steals Þvörur (a type of a wooden spoon with a long handle – I. þvara) to lick. Is extremely thin due to malnutrition.

December 16 Pottasleikir (Pot-Licker) Steals leftovers from pots.

December 17 Askasleikir (Bowl-Licker) Hides under beds waiting for someone to put down their ‘askur’ (a type of bowl with a lid used instead of dishes), which he then steals.

December 18 Hurðaskellir (Door-Slammer) Likes to slam doors, especially during the night.

December 19 Skyrgámur (Skyr-Gobbler) A Yule Lad with an affinity for skyr.

December 20 Bjúgnakrækir (Sausage-Swiper) Would hide in the rafters and snatch sausages that were being smoked.

December 21 Gluggagægir (Window-Peeper) A voyeur who would look through windows in search of things to steal.

December 22 Gáttaþefur (Doorway-Sniffer) Has an abnormally large nose and an acute sense of smell which he uses to locate laufabrauð.

December 23 Ketkrókur (Meat-Hook) Uses a hook to steal meat.

December 24 Kertasníkir (Candle-Stealer) Follows children in order to steal their candles (which in those days was made of tallow and thus edible).

Proof of Yule Lads’ existence

Has to be true:

Buy some Yule Lads’ figurines

The Nordic store are selling this set of 16 figures:

Yule lads figurines picture

Yule lads figurines from shopicelandic.com

The devilish-looking character at the back is the lads’ troll mother, and there’s even a Yule cat who attacks those unfortunates who don’t receive a new piece of clothing at Christmas (??)

Related posts: Legend of the Golem of Prague