Friday, June 17, 2011

Þjóðhátíðardagurinn

Photos: (1) Moss likes to grow under the hot pipes in Hveragerði; (2) Hveragerði bakery; (3) The church Hjallakirkja; (4) Raufarhólshellir cave; (5-6) Eyrarbakki; (7) Þjórsárdalur campsite

Today is an Icelandic public holiday called Þjóðhátíðardagurinn celebrating the day in 1944 that the Republic of Iceland was formed. There will be celebrations in the villages and many people use this weekend to camp, and the young people like to party. For example, there is a music festival today featuring one of my favorite Icelandic bands, Dikta, held at a countryside campsite and lake not far from where I’m currently roaming about. But I just saw them play in Berlin a few weeks ago and I’m not really into loud crowds on this trip.

Since it’s a holiday, Katja and I use this as a good excuse to sleep in. There’s a bit of rain on and off in the morning at 13°C (55°F). After a quick shower, we have a look at the new geothermal area that opened in the 2008 earthquake and then head to the bakery for breakfast. After many cups of coffee and a sampling of various treats, I want to show Katja the hiking area before I continue on alone for the rest of my trip. She stays to do some hiking and take a dip in the hot river and I get in the car and continue on my way.

I take road 38 towards Þorlákshöfn and stop to photograph a cute little church called Hjallakirkja. Then I head north on 39 up the mountain pass of Þrengsli. I stop at the cave called Raufarhólshellir, which is over a kilometer long and can be explored with the proper equipment and ideally with a guide. I just have a quick look around and with all the holes in the ground leading into the cave, I'm a bit hesitant to walk on its grassy roof in fear of breaking through. I continue slowly in the car, looking for a good spot to hike. I really feel like hiking today, so when I see a small mountain and a gravel road that’s my indication to stop. I actually had my ambitions on climbing Geitafell today, but the road leading to it is too poor for my little Yaris, so I end up on top Litla Sandfell instead. There’s a bit of drizzle and strong wind but the view is rewarding and even though it’s only a short hike, it’s invigorating.

Back in the car, I head towards Þorlákshöfn. I’ve been to these little southern coastal towns only once a long time ago in the pouring rain and in my memories they are all quite dismal and dreary. So I decide to give them a chance to improve their reputations by revisiting them 10 years later. I spend an unusually long amount of time in Þorlákshöfn, examining the church and campsite, the pool, the seaside road and the lighthouse. It's quite an ugly, lost little town but it was nice visiting again.

Next stop is Eyrarbakki, a fishing town with a population of 577. For centuries this town was the main port and trading center in the south, but lost its significance over the years due to poor harbor conditions. The town is not as bad as my memory recalled, and its charming old historical buildings are actually quite pretty. The primary school, established in 1852, is the oldest in the country. There’s a raised walkway made of dirt and grass along the coast to walk along the seaside and a cute little café. I can’t really find the campsite despite following the sign, though it might be a cute town to camp in and take a long walk in the evening.

But it’s not time to call it a day yet. On to Stokkseyri, which is certainly one of the dreariest places in all of Iceland. After a short walk, I decide to get out fast and travel on to Selfoss. There, the Bónus grocery store is open despite the holiday as well as a few other stores and cafés. After buying a package of my favorite chocolate cake topped with caramel and black licorice to take back home with me, I have a quick cup of coffee at the café before looking for a campsite for the night.

Þrasturskógur, which is usually a sleepy little campsite, is full to the brim with huge campers and Icelandic families ready to celebrate the holiday weekend. As I turn around the car and drive out, at least 5 more campers arrive. I guess it might be tough finding a quiet campsite tonight! But I have one idea that just might work and indeed, my guess is correct: Þjórsárdalur campsite, just southeast of Selfoss down road 305, is secluded and quiet, and only 2 other campers are on the other side of the lot. I pick a spot close to the lake, Villingaholtsvatn. The wind is really strong but it’s sunny and I make dinner at the picnic table and enjoy the evening. The warden comes at 10 pm and after determining that I have “a really small tent”, he kindly turns the hot water on in the showers for me since neither of us has change for the automat. After a hot shower, I’m happy and content and lie in my sleeping bag with the flap open, looking out at the lake.