Posts

The Prettiest Volcano

Image
During 2021, Reykjavik was entertained by a small, pretty volcano at Fagradalsfjall, between the capital and Keflavík international airport. It tossed fire safely into the sky like an overgrown firework, grew a new little mountain and spilled black spongeous lava down a mountainside. It should have been tourist gold, but COVID-related lockdowns made it difficult to reach. I managed to get there in June of 2021. At that stage, the eruption had calmed down, and sadly the day I visited, the new volcano was covered in cloud. I did manage to hike to the foot of the lava flow: black foamy rock in the process of freezing, with red glowing through its cracks, and sulphurous smoke leaking out. The volcano took a little nap and then reawakened in August 2022 at the nearby Meradalir. Once again, Icelanders and hardy tourists were entertained by spumes of bright red lava (see photo above taken by Lee-Anne Fox). This time, it was a five-hour round-trip hike from the road to see the eruption.

The Holy Mountain: Guest Post by Nancy Brown post

Image
Time for another guest post. This one is from American author and horsewoman Nancy Marie Brown . When I wrote a recent post on elves in Iceland, Nancy’s publishers sent me a copy of her upcoming book Looking for the Hidden Folk . Like me, Nancy has fallen in love with Iceland, and also like me she has quite a hard-headed, sceptical view of superstition. A rational person might ask how can so many people in a modern well-educated society like Iceland entertain the concept of hidden people or elves? This book is her answer, and it’s fascinating. It’s also a wonderful evocation of Iceland, its people and its countryside. Here is an excerpt, about an early visit to Helgafell, Iceland’s “Holy Mountain”, very close to where my detective Magnus’s grandfather’s farm at Bjarnarhöfn. I was a graduate student in medieval literature when I first went to Iceland in 1986. I wanted to see the farm of Helgafell, site of the Icelandic saga Eyrbyggja—a saga Michael Ridpath, my host on this blog, u

Two More Volcanoes: Two Towns Half Buried

Image
  As you fly towards Iceland from Europe, or as you drive along the Ring Road from Reykjavík to Vík, you see a group of cubic islands, which look like poker dice tossed into the sea by some gambling troll.  These are the Westman Islands, and they contain two volcanoes of note. One is the island of Surtsey, which is the westernmost die. This thrust itself out of the sea to form an island in 1963 in a spectacular eruption that lasted four years.  The island covered one square mile right after the eruption finished, but has already halved in size with erosion. Scientists are trying to keep the island pristine to study how life takes hold on a brand-new chunk of land, but according to the Christian Science Monitor an ‘improperly handled human defecation event’ resulted in a tomato sprouting on the island. It has been removed. Heimaey The other volcano takes up half of the biggest Westman Island, Heimaey. The other half is taken up by quite a large fishing port, with a population of about f

Hekla and Katla: Rearranging Iceland over the Centuries

Image
  There have been about thirty volcanoes active in Iceland since the Norse settlers arrived.  The island was created only twenty million years ago. It stands on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a chain of mostly underwater mountains created by volcanic activity as the European and North American continental plates rip apart from each other. In Iceland, the volcanoes reach the surface, where they simmer, bubble and occasionally explode. Let me introduce you to some of them. We have already met Snaefellsjökull , the prettiest of them all with its almost perfect cone and its topping of ice, that hovers above Snaefellsnes. It is taking a nap at the moment - the last time it erupted was about AD 200. Hekla: Iceland's busiest volcano We have also met the most active, Hekla. This is sited just to the north of Eyjafjallajökull, and can be clearly seen from sixty miles away. It is nearly classically volcano-shaped - a cone with hunched shoulders - but the summit is actually a line of craters covered

Eyja-something-or-other: The Volcano that Stopped the World

Image
  One evening in April 2010 I was on my way to an event in a library in Chiswick in West London to talk about Where the Shadows Lie , which had just been published. I was a little early, so I wandered through a park, running over the talk in my head.  I was at that awkward moment in the book cycle where I had three books in my head: the book I was promoting ( Where the Shadows Lie ), the book I was writing ( 66 Degrees North ) and the book I was going to write next (?, Magnus III?, Help!). I was searching for a topic for the next one. Like The Lord of the Rings and the financial crash, I wanted it to be something relevant to Iceland, but also of worldwide importance. My phone rang. It was my wife, Barbara. She was in Beijing and had just been told that her flight back to Britain was cancelled because of a volcano in Iceland. This was the beginning of a fraught week for Barbara, who, after a few days hanging around in Beijing, returned to London via New York, Madrid, Saint-Malo and Por

Favourite Places – Hótel Búdir

Image
  The Hótel Búdir is my favourite place in Iceland. It stands next to its black church alone, halfway along the south coast of Snaefellsnes. It is a spectacular location. To the north rises the wall of mountains that runs along the spine of the peninsula, spouting long white streams of waterfalls. To the east, a golden beach stretches for several kilometres along which horses gallop beside the blue waters of Faxaflói Bay. To the south, the Black Church perches on a low ridge. Looking to the west, you gaze over a treacherous lava field surrounding a raised crater, and beyond that the breathtaking Snaefellsjökull. The hotel bar is cosy, with a telescope to examine local eagles. The food is excellent - lamb, fish, seafood, samphire - and the dining room faces west towards the volcano. Sunset takes its time in Iceland, and you can spend the whole meal watching the light on Snaefellsjökull turn from yellow to pink to red, until finally, once the sun has disappeared benea

Ghosts

Image
  The Icelandic countryside teems with folk stories. Every village or even farm has one, and they don’t just concern elves. We have heard about the trolls, but there are also sea monsters, seals, serpents, polar bears and sorcerers, as well as assorted goody-goody pastors and saints. There are also ghosts and ‘seers’. Most towns still have their seers, or fortune-tellers, and many people will explain that one of their extended family has the gift. The country is also teeming with ghosts.  In general, these are more benign than British ghosts. Like the hidden people, they will offer helpful advice rather than scare the living daylights out of you.  One Icelander told me how a relative was able to communicate with her dead grandmother, who occasionally warned her of impending disaster. This relative was reluctant to admit her ability to anyone; she wasn’t an attention-seeker, and it raised all kinds of problems. What should she do with the information her grandmother gave her? Wouldn’t p