Fire and ice, Iceland by motorcycle

I’ve always held on to a deep curiosity towards Iceland. A mysterious place that never looks too far but always relegated to the upper corner of our maps. An island of volcanoes and ice that seems to come straight from a tale or a fantasy novel, a country that incredibly seems to be ignored by the main routes of tourism. Let’s say it: you don’t know anything of Iceland until you’ve been there. It’s easy and wonderful to visit it, providing you choose the right period – but this applies to all places doesn’t it?

This journey took place in 2014 and it was my first solo motorcycle trip.

Memories of an old friend

I used to have a friend from Iceland. She studied in my city, Florence, for one year. She was a lovely and smiling person: if I had a stereotype about Icelanders she wasn’t too close to that. Unfortunately, we lost contact with each other after she left and all my efforts to catch up with her failed afterwards. I remember she once showed me a picture of her house in the northwest if the island. It was night, the photo framed a beautiful wooden house, one of those typical ones, colored, with a big, steep roof. The house was covered with snow and illuminated by the lights of a big Christmas tree standing right in front of it. It was obviously around Christmas. I asked her at what time the picture was taken. She told me it should have been around 3 pm… Wow! I was so curious and asked her how people used to spend winter time, being so cold and dark. She said it wasn’t so hard when you had friends and a nice, supportive community where basically everyone knows each other.

Since then my curiosity became stronger, and when I got my motorcycle license I decided these were the perfect ingredients for my first motorcycle trip abroad.

There is always a first time

Let’s be frank, when you decide to go on a motorcycle trip to a remote country by yourself it’s something you have to invent from scratch. Mine was an even more experimental experience because it was my first solo journey, my first Iceland visit and my first time riding a real motorbike, excluding my friend’s BMW I used to take the license exam just a few months before.

At the time being, there was nothing but a motorcycle rental activity on the island. Its name was the “Biking Viking”. No wonder why it was the only one, being an island that has the same population of city where I live. But no doubt, the name was inviting!

Having arranged everything for my trip, I packed all my stuff and left for… Scotland! I had found it was much cheaper flying through Scotland: that gave me the chance to spend a few extra days in the land of kilts and bagpipes. But that’s a story for another time! Let’s just say I really loved Scotland but three days later I was in Glasgow getting on a plane for Iceland.

Cliffs and sea close to Arnarstapi.

As we were getting close to the island, we flew over the coast and what was considerend to be almost the Arctic sea. At a certain point, we even spotted a thin white line on the horizon the captain told to be the coast of Greenland – I was lucky being on the left side of the airplane. I took some pictures from the airplane window expecting to frame the dark and cold Icelandic sea with maybe polar bears and icebergs drifting around. Actually, the ocean around the island was light blue in color and so transparent you could see the bottom. Nothing like the cold ocean I imagined! I haven’t posted the airplane pictures, which are not very good looking, but one I took a few days later around the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Does it look like an arctic sea?

My journey on a map

Reykjavik

Having just a few days to spend on the island I had previously collected a quantity of places worth seeing and reported them on a map. Then I had drawn an itinerary with a tight schedule that would allow me to see most of those located in between Reykjavik and the Akureyri. I decided to base in Reykjavik during the first day considering many of the most famous places happened to be located just around the capital. I chose a nice looking youth hostel intending to make my way to the Biking Viking at the crack of dawn. Well, that’s a joke: the sun never sets on Iceland in June!

The promenade along the bay in Raykjavik.

The more you go north in Europe, the more people seem to be jealous of their privacy. I call it “latitudinal social gradient”. As I walked along the promenade in direction of the rental shop, buildings seemed to get more distant than usual: even the tallest ones seemed to spawn from grass here and there.

I have to say I struggled in finding that place: the rental shop was a motorcycle dealer next to a sexy shop. The guy seemed to fancy Harleys a lot, as the shop had a good deal of those on exposition, plus leather bags, jackets and shiny, chromed accessories everywhere.

I rented a BMW F650: I chose something close to the bike I had for my licence exam, but I really had no clue how it would feel, until I got to try it in front of the owner.

The cathedral of Hallgrímskirkja.

On the moment I have to say I felt very clumsy, trying to hide my awkwardness while riding up and down the parking lot.

On the way back I had five minutes to have a fried fish at a small cafeteria on the promenade. And also had time to take a short trip around the center, pass by the Reykjavíkurtjörnin lake and visit the particular and interesting cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja: probably one of the most fascinating corners of the city.

Somewhere around Borganes.

Reykjavik is a nice and neat town, I would have liked to spend a few more hours visiting the cathedral, exploring the city and maybe taking a couple of pictures from above but unfortunately the clock was ticking. So after a few hours I was riding south to one of the closest and most famous places on the island.

The Blue Lagoon

With no doubt, one of the most popular places in Iceland turns out to be the so-called Blue Lagoon at Grindavik. In fact, the first piece of icelandic ground I saw from the airplane was the area where the Keflavik airport is located. Iceland offers a variety of very different environments but that stretch of land looked absolutely weird: a sterile, brown volcanic ground with no signs of vegetation or human presence, except for the airport and what looked like an industrial building by some smoking hot, whitish ponds.

Pools of thermal waters around the Blue Lagoon site.

The are many Blue Lagoons on Earth but the one of Iceland is a unique series of light blue ponds of thermal water located in one of the strangest looking corners of the island: the southwestern peninsula of Reykjanes.

The whole land was an expanse of dark lava rock, with edges that cut like knives. Do you remember Frodo and Sam wandering around Mordor? It looked like pretty much the same kind of land. I’m not saying it was awful, it was just very particular and primordial and obviously a place where it looked difficult to settle. Traveling through that region I remember asking myself if most of the island would have looked like that.

When I arrived, I noticed that the endless expanse of sharp rocks was interrupted here and there by a series of interconnected ponds. The whitish, sulphurous water was really standing out in a black landscape. Somehwere in the middle, the popular spa building: a bit odd, considering it was a rectangular white building with chimneys sending up tall columns of white vapor in the air, not really looking like a wellness center.

I immediately decided the white spa building was not for me. I wandered around and found a small wooden bridge and a path that was winding through the sharp rocks.

Somewhere not far from there, I found a nice and quiet spot and decided it was definitely worth trying to take a quick swim. Despite the fact I couldn’t take out of my mind the fact water looked like that coming out of a washing machine, I decided to slowly climb into: it was a warm and absolutely rewarding moment!

Þingvellir

Just a stone’s throw from Reykjavik there were also three of the must-see places of Iceland, not far from each other. After the strange experience with the lavic waters of the Lagoon, the next day I got on the road leading towards the interior of the island. It was my first real ride and I was pretty damn excited to explore the inner land, its landscapes, waterfalls and geysers.

Left of the road: America. Right side: Europe.

Not far from the city, there was a valley and a park whose name started with a curious letter that looked like a P, but that was actually something like a Th: Þingvellir, a national park and an important historical heritage site in a broad valley dotted with lakes.

I summoned memories from my geology studies and remembered that the Great Atlantic Rift, the big crack that divides the European and African plates from the American one went straight through Iceland. But I couldn’t imagine you could actually see it and walk through it! The walkway leading to the heritage site was going straight though the fissure created by the two diverging tectonic plates. The two stone walls on each side were technically… Europe and America! Fascinating!

Thingvellir ancient parliament site.

The path was leading to the entrance of the National Park. The view over the super green and endless valley was amazing. If I hadn’t read it in my guide I could never imagine that the group of small white, wooden houses in the distance could be so important to Icelanders: it was in fact the place where the first Norwegian lord settled before middle ages and short afterwards it became the place where the first parliament of the island was founded.

The Great Geysir

Heading further east, the landscape was still open, with no real mountains in sight, just small lakes and stretches of fields. It was sunny but the funny thing is temperature seemed to increase as I proceeded towards the interior of the island.

Not far from Thingvellir there was a strange site, a hillside, once a private land owned by a foreigner, that hosted the first ever described geyser. Guess where the english word geyser comes from?

Ponds of hot water all around the area.

As I approached, I was trying to imagine how the place would have been organized if it was in my country: probably there would have been a fence, a ticket desk, a long queue and an employee barking at people to stand back and not to take pictures.

On the hillside, a field was dotted with smoking, reddish ponds, emitting sulfur-smelling vapors. Water was flowing downhill leaving yellow, white and red deposits here and there.

The great Geysir. Notice the hole under the water. Quiet but not for long.

Hot water was flowing though the grass in small streams and a quantity of visitors were wandering around. No fences except a rope surrounding the biggest ponds. One of the largest ones, surrounded by strange reddish rock formations – and people – was the Great Geysir! It was smoking and seemed to have a large hole in the middle but when I got there everything was quiet. Of course it didn’t last long.

From time to time the water level was lowering, the pond seemed to be quickly swallowing it as if somebody removed the plug from a bathtub. Then all of a sudden, it was exploding back in a giant column of boiling water, meters high, accompanied by the screams of the crowd around it! At times, visitors armed with cameras or posing for pictures were getting dangerously close to the erupting pond. I went back thinking about the missing fence and I remembered seeing a sign on a white prefabricated building close to the parking that was saying “first aid and burn center”.

Too bad there was not enough time that day for pictures and videos and for trying to get a 3rd degree burn, I had another exciting place to visit: Gullfoss.

Gullfoss waterfalls

Among the most spectacular and rewarding things you can visit on Iceland you can surely list Gullfoss. It’s not only a series of giant and spectacular waterfalls, it’s also a beautiful and broad canyon on whose edges you can walk and enjoy the most scenic and breathtaking views.

I have to say I was very lucky during that journey: it was sunny, something that’s rarely assured when you visit Iceland. In the exact moment I arrived the sun was shining so bright it created a wonderful rainbow over the falls going from one side to the other of the canyon.

The lovely sunny day delivered a rainbow right across the waterfalls.

The path leading to the front of the main waterfalls was at times a bit slippery and was ending on a rock pillar right over the longest jump the water was taking before disappearing in a crag. The falling water was creating such a roaring noise and a turbolent wind that was showering the pillar and all of us with a thick cloud of water. Even this time there was just a warning sign and a cordon discouraging people from getting too close to the border. Maturity, people should be responsible for themselves. But I was shivering at the idea of loosing grip and disappearing in the abyss down below.

The last waterfall and path leading to the pillars.

On the way to Akureyri

I wished I had more days to visit everything and add the northwestern peninsula to my trip. I read there were some wonderful beaches and fjords. Unfortunately, the few days I had at my disposal forced me to stay of the ring road and decide through which half of the island I should have continued my trip. In fact, Iceland is travelled by the most known Ring Road, a very well-kept and easy to travel road that goes around the island for miles, not far from the coast.

One of the famous Icelandic horses, in summer coat. In Iceland even horses have blue eyes.

Basing on my must-see list, I decided to travel up north then east, riding the ring road clockwise towards Akureyri, the second biggest town on Iceland. At a certain point I thought I could have cut through the middle, but the guy at the rental shop had been extremely clear: the only one road crossin the island through the middle in between the volcanos is not something you can travel with a motorbike. And it was probably closed. Remember 2010’s eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull?

My idea was leaving Reykjavik early, allowing only a quick stop along the way to have a look at the Husafell waterfall.

Husafell waterfall. Not the tallest ones but really a nice place.

What I didn’t know was that the road, in perfect condition I have to say, was going up and down at least three mountain passes in between the capital and Akureyri.

One of the most common mistakes in motorcycle traveling is underestimating distances or the effort necessary to ride a certain stage. So obvious yet so frequent.

Goðafoss.

I actually wasn’t heading exactly towards Akureyri but to a nearby village called Dalvik. I was booking my stays day by day and before leaving I had found a deal for a nice looking hostel north of Akureyri, why not?

By mid morning the pleasant detour to Husafell was over, the waterfalls were not as scenic or crowded as Gullfoss but it was definitely a stop worth taking. Not knowing exactly how much it would have takes to get there, I sent a message to the owner of the hostel kindly asking him if he could wait for my arrival after dinner. Then I set myself on the way to the northern lands!

After Reykjavik the road was a quietly going through a mostly flat and quite monotonous region. I remeber stopping  for a picture at the village of Borganes just to see exactly the same view, years later, in the movie, The secret life of Walter Mitty. What I thought would have been a long and quiet trip through the moorland turned out to be something completely different as the road started going up short after Borganes, and the temperature started dropping.

The road went straight up into a bank of clouds.

As I was going up, it started drizzling and a thick and worrisome wall of clouds appeared ahead of me. After entering the fog it got so cold I has to stop for a rapid clothes change in a field with a think and wet carpet of musk.

I remember driving for hours in the rainy fog (that was actually a carpet of clouds at ground level) with gusts of wind throwing cold rain at me and handle heaters at max power that couldn’t prevent my hands from getting frozen. It’s probably been the toughest moment of the journey as I was starting to realize I might not have been able to reach the hostel or even find a gas station!

Hours later, the last fog bank was behind.

Fortunately the road started going down and getting out of the clouds. Down in the valley, right in the middle of nowhere there was a comforting red building with a cafè and some fuel pumps. I was tired, cold and quite demoralized when I saw a man looking at me from behind the yellow lenses of his glasses while I was refueling: I told him the pump was jammed, he started gesticulating and saying something incomprehensible. This, together with the fact he was smoking right in front of the fuel pump gave me a hint… Italian? The man turned around and called his family with loud voice! I was so happy having met some fellow countryman in that moment. We went inside, had a coffee, the man introduced me to his family. He told me how cool was what I was doing and he used to do the same when he was younger. We wished each other good luck with the journey before I hurried back to the motorcycle: it was getting darker already.

Almost midnight, the sun has still to go down behind the sharp mountains.

After Blönduós and the only crossing where you have to turn, the road went up to mountain passes then down into some beautiful valleys twice. Unfortunately the weather kept on being cold and foggy most of the times. Despite the fact I was terribly late and dead tired to appreciate, some of the places were absolutely fascinating.

Red musk fields on the last mountain pass before going down to Akureyri.

I got down from the last mountain pass at a horrible hour. I don’t exactly remember but it must have been close to midnight. There was still plenty of light around as if the whole land was under an enchantment. The hostel owner, which I was keeping updated, was so kind of waiting for me until very late. After midnight I arrived at the village of Dalvik.

Dalvik and Akureyri

Dalvik was a village mostly known as a departing point for the ferry going to the Grimsey island, the only piece of Iceland beyond the arctic circle. When I got there it was almost 1am but there was still enough light for some young guys to be playing basketball in front of a school. The scene seemed really surreal to me. They were so kind of indicating me the location of the hostel. When I got there I was immensely happy to meet the owner, a really kind person who waited for me until late.

The port of Dalvik.

The next morning, after exchanging a few words with the nice man, who had been in Italy with his family for some time (skiing apparently), I had a well-deserved breakfast at a deserted cafè in front of the docks. A very shy blonde barmaid was the only person around and the only one I met around the village. There were plenty of things to do and places to go that day. The first one was Akureyri.

The road running along the fjord.

When I first read of Akureyri, I didn’t know what kind of place to expect. The second biggest town on the island, with a lively community of 10000 inhabitants. Akureyri was in a fact a pretty town and the beginning of a fjord whose mountains were still almost fully covered with snow. Despite the sunny day the fjord had a really glacial look, but despite of the glacial look the center of the town and the port looked quite cozy.

A view of Akureyri from the opposite side of the valley.

I stopped for a coffee and a walk through the main street. I laughed within myself when I noticed the Italian restaurant that was occupying a big, red building close to the cafè: I sort of had a feeling I’d find Italians up here too. I booked a hostel for the way back and had a look and the modern, austere church that was towering over the center.

Notice the Italian restaurant on the left.

Time for a coffee and a second breakfast and I departed for the last stage of my trip before having to go back to Reykjavik.

A viewpoint on the road to Myvatn

Mývatn lake and Hverir mud pools and boiling fumaroles

The farthest point I planned to reach was Dettifoss and its beautiful valley in a region that seemed to offer many other interesting spots. I was expecting a almost-arctic scenario but I got surprised once again.

A woman with a stroller in Reykjahlid.

The road out of Akureyri continued along the frozen fjord for a few kilometers before turning right out of it all of a sudden. The land that followed was similar to the one of the previous day until I got to a village by a large series of interconnected lakes in a vast moorland, called Myvatn. 

The place was definitely worth a stop and a few pictures if it wasn’t for one thing: as I stopped, I was immediately assaulted by a giant swarm of flies that seemed not to have seen a human in ages. A woman coming out of a camper had her head covered by one of those hats used by beekeepers, those that surround your whole head and neck with a metallic mosquito net. I took two or three pictures before running back to the motorbike chased by the insane swarm of flies. I don’t know if that was the “flies” period – no surprise considering the marshy land full of ponds and lakes – if it was, I couldn’t imagine how people could live there: in fact, there was nobody around in the streets between the sparse houses.

The Myvatn lake.

Hverir

After Myvatn, the road passed by an amazing area: here and there geothermal activity seemed to have raised giant bubbles in the ground. On the right the entrance to a heritage site and a park was leading to a volcano that was a perfect dejection cone, completely black, called Dimmu Borgir. Mindful of the previous day, I decided I had no time to visit that. I moved on and got to an amazing ridge of hills dividing the valley of Myvatn form the desolate lands of Nordurland.

The yellow hills at Hverir with its smoking holes emitting sulphurous water.

At the foot of the hills the land was turning from green to a strange ocher-yellow, with an even more strange blue lake and smoke coming out from holes around the hills. It was an area of intense geothermic activity and a series of smoking fumaroles was emitting sulphurous vapors and waters full of sulfur that painted the whole land yellow. It looked like that place was teleported from another planet, maybe one of the Star Wars series.

The Norðurland, Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls

A vast plain lied ahead once I crossed the colored ridge. It was much warmer compared to the Akureyri fjord: I’m sure it had something to do with the geothermal phenomenon as the soil seemed to be warmer and there was almost no sign of snow around.

The martian look of the plains close to Dettifoss.

The middle of Nordurland had turned into an amazing desert made of stones that looked like something like a primordial Earth or the surface of Mars. Not surprisingly, Kubrik shot the first part of the movie Prometheus, the one with the alien walking on a primordial Earth, by this river.

Dettifoss.

The road turned to Dettifoss following the course of a valley where the river was flowing. Running in a deep valley, it wasn’t visible from the road but its presence was revealed by the clouds of vaporized water sent up in the air by its turbulent waters.

Just after the parking, a muddy path was leading down the edge of the valley to the Dettifoss waterfall. An impressive amount of water was jumping down with an impressive roar, lifting up clouds of water and wind. I thought Gullfoss was impressive, but this one had some primordial brutality in the way those muddy waters were being pushed down those pillars of grey rock into the tight canyon below.

The path continued following the course of the river upstream through a martian-looking field filled with rocks, to the upper waterfall, Selfoss.

Selfoss had a different look and feeling: it was a series of waterfalls falling into a broader basin. It looked like the walls of the canyon had been carved with some sort of giant tool. The rock formations were impressive and definitely not a rare phenomenon in Iceland: a series of huge pillars that had a sort of hexagonal or octagonal shape in section.

Selfoss.

That part of the day was blessed with some sun, making the place look much nicer and less “primordial”. Just a few hours before I had to go back to Akureyri, straight into a summer storm that was right in between me and the yellow hills.

Going back

Getting into a storm while on a motorcycle is supposed to be at least annoying, if not dangerous. But the truth is, sometimes it’s almost… pleasant. Especially when it’s summer, the air gets fresh and full of the smell of rain and of fresh grass. The road went straight through the storm but it was over in the turn of ten minutes as I reached the foot of the sulfur hills. And it granted my eyes with yet another rainbow.

A rainbow as a reward for getting out of the storm.

The next day, I had to start my journey back to Reykjavik, with just one programmed stop to the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Mindful of the previous experience, I was ready to cover the distance between there and Akureyri and face the road and weather. With great surprise the weather was almost perfect and mountains and valleys had a completely different aspect in sunlight.

Iceland really looks amazing in spring.

Some mountain pass still had some humid and cold fog bank waiting for me but the valleys down below were so green and full of flowers I stopped a few times to take the pictures they deserved.

Some fog banks are still there waiting for you.
Gerðuberg basalt pillars at Snæfellsnes Peninsula

The last night I stayed at a hostel Borganes and had dinner at an Asian restaurant that seemed to be the only non-cafè place that was affordable. The dinner was nothing to remember and I was tired, my face was burnt by sun and wind.

Arnarstapi and Hellnar

I spent a few minutes chatting with the nice owner of the hostel, commenting how much I would have liked to have more time to visit the northwestern corner of the island, where a fantastic beach called Rauðasandur was located. He told me I could have easily got to that region by taking a ferry from a village nearby. Too bad I had no idea. Anyway, he assured I could have made up for it by visiting the nearby coast, that according to him was a must-see.

Arnarstapi.

Arnarstapi and its neighbor, Hellnar, are popular locations among Icelanders and maybe not so known among tourists. The village of Arnarstapi itself is a handful of nice looking, wooden houses sparse on the green grass just in front of the cliffs by the sea. The place is a heritage site and one of the oldest fishing harbors of the island. 

The small harbor.

If the village itself is lovely, the coastline is amazing, especially on a sunny day: the crystal-clear waters had a color I could never imagine to see at this latitude. You know, cold waters use to have a dark color, but the waters of Iceland are neither dark, nor cold. You don’t believe me? If you are not sensitive to the cold try taking a swim in Iceland and do the same in Greenland or northern Canada at the same latitude. Iceland waters are obviously cold but not much. And this thanks to guess who? The Gulf Stream!

Stunning beach on the way to Hellnar.

Actually, one of the nicest aspects of the area was the wonderful road that lead there, running along some broad and deserted beaches and green fields full of flowers. The view from the cliffs was amazing, with the blue sea beneath fields and snow-capped mountains in the distance.

I spent some times wandering around the village, looking at the beautiful, typical, wooden houses. Honestly, it looked everything but a fishing harbor, having no streets and no sign of commercial activities except a few souvenir shops and a museum. Houses looked more like summer ones, and seemed to have been randomly built here and there connected by simple paths through the grass.

Hellnar.

Some of these paths ran along the cliff and connected the village to its neighbor, Hellnar, an equally nice and old fishing village not far from Arnarstapi. It’s been one of the nicest days and places I visited on the island also thanks to the beautiful sunny day.

A beautiful beach and a short swim

Coming to Arnarstapi I stopped several times along the road to admire the long beach that was stretching along the coast immediately before the cliffs.

Just this road from the horse riding school seemed to lead to the beach.

Despite the fact the beach looked absolutely amazing, there seemed to be absolutely nobody there. Not a single person sunbathing or enjoying a walk on the orange sand in the sunny day. Nothing except a cute red building with a white roof. Before going back, I felt like really wanted to go there just to try how it feels being on such a nice beach close to the polar circle. I got close to the building and asked a girl wearing a strange helmet how to get there: there seemed to be no road leading to it. She told me it was a private road but the owner would grant me to go through!

The building was in fact a horse-riding school. A few minutes later, I got to the beach and short after a line of horse riders appeared and started to slowly ride along the vast and empty beach.

I spent quite some time walking on the sand. It had an amazing reddish color and the mountains behind gave the place an incredible look, something magical that could come straight from a book of tales. Before leaving, I couldn’t resist: I undressed and entered the sea. The water was cold but nothing compared to the feeling of being swimming in the north-Atlantic ocean, close to the polar circle. As I said, it wasn’t as cold as I expected (and believe me, I’m sensitive to cold) but having no towels and suit I limited my Icelandic water experience to a brief dip up to my waste.

I never thought I could find such a beautiful beach on Iceland.

Conclusions

As I told, this trip took place many years ago. Some memories have faded but I perfectly remember the feeling of planning and finally going to a place that has always deeply attracted me since when I was a kid. Nowadays, in era of internet, low-cost flights and social media everything feels closer. But I’m sure people will understand me when I say that sometimes you feel attracted to a place and you feel an irresistible need to go there and see how people live and how their cities, valleys, mountains and sky look.

I hope my words and pictures will inspire someone to discover this beautiful land, why not, maybe on a motorcycle!

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