Day eight… (Drangsnes, Bjarnarfjörður, dodgy mountain passes, Borgarnes, Reykjavik)

OUR time in Iceland has been marked by the kindness of strangers, and today started out as no exception. A lovely breakfast spread, laid on just for us by the couple who owned the hotel. With no one else in sight. Our renewed plans centred on spending the morning driving around Bjarnarfjordir on the top edge of our peninsula, before cutting over two or three mountain passes and on to Reykjavik for evening time! Snow showers with three snow flake symbols were appearing on the Weather forecast, so we were kinda aware that we shouldn’t dally too long. Two of our passes have wobbled between red (closed), black (“difficult”), and puce (pretty nadging scary) over the last week or two. Fresh snow -> potential concerns.

Petrol first! Drangsnes (population 67, according to Wiki. Though it felt a bit bigger than that) has it’s own sea-view pump. Indeed, automated pumps are everywhere, and deeply useful. I’ve felt more at risk of running out of petrol in English country roads, than I have in Iceland’s deserted regions.

And, with a full tank, onwards.

I feel that we kinda need our “road threat sensors” to be recalibrated to Iceland levels, as we’ve persistently found conditions that seem terrifying one day seem mundane – and perhaps the norm – 16 hours later. The road was of the kind that we find / found daunting. Ice coated gravel, with no tracks made by any other cars, with routine ten per cent hills, regularly ending in cliff-top sharp turns.

Perhaps there is a book in this. Hairpin Bends I have Known and Loved.

We dithered happily (cautiously) along, until things started to feel a bit askew. We were definitely meant to be going to the end of the fjord. But what we were NOW in was a powder-white, mountain pass. A quick google revealed that somehow we’d overshot, and our target was now 44mins away. A quick interrogation of google maps revealed that this wasn’t quite the full picture. The first 35mins of our new directions involved driving 17.5mins to the end of the mountain pass, turning around, and driving 17.5mins back to where we were now.

One three-point turn later, A was on the phone to the owner of our target hotel, who said he would gladly come out to open up his hotel, and give us a coffee.

Of all the kind people we’ve met on our travels, he turned out to be the most spontaneously generous. We arrived at the hotel some minutes before him. Once he turned up, he gave us a guided tour of his hotel which was fascinating in and of itself. It had been the local school, and was still in a process of being converted. A squeaked in joy at the bars on the wall, and I found the school stage both evocative and characterful! An awesome place, apparently in the process of becoming more awesome still.

He showered us with fantastic coffee and biscuits, and explained the local history – the hotpot was blessed by a bishop in the twelfth century, and is now a national monument:

The swimming pool, too, was wreathed in history, with picture coating the changing room walls.

And then he lent us towels, so that we could use the geothermal swimming pool and hotpot. And pointed the way to the witches’ hut, a sister building if the museum of sorcery and witchcraft in Holmavik. All this, for free! We felt beyond privileged, and indescribably lucky to be out in the Eastern Westerfjords in March. We kinda know that it’s an experience not many will’ve had, and the generosity of the people here makes it feel like a real gift. “Bless” is, I think, one Icelandic term for goodbye. It constantly feels like an apposite word!

So, yes. On theme, the witches hut! I couldn’t quite get in, but had a look around the doors!

The view from outside the hut:

And the view from by the front door:

A is pretty clear that the geothermal pool / hotpot made her day – and, to a large extent, her holiday. We knew we were getting a bit knife-edge with the blizzard forecast, but this was more than worth it. I only wallowed in the hotpot, which was unbelievably toasty with water bubbling up from below:

A spent a great deal more time swimming lengths in the (still warm!) geothermal pool.

I keep on coming back to the same word. Because I don’t know how else to describe it. Being the only tourists there, we felt completely blessed, welcomed, and privileged! Two of the luckiest people on earth!

We took some advice from the hotel owner about the passability of our intended route, given it was colour coded black and puce. His advice was identical to the advice we received in Drangsnes and Holmavik – go for it! That road is usually alright! – so with renewed spring in our step, we set off.

Our FIRST mountain pass of the day was colour-colored white. Fresh or wet snow. It was 200m up, and genuinely beautiful!

Our SECOND mountain pass of the day was colour coded black. It was 400m high. It was… Passable. But I have images of margins in my mind. And curiosity about the confidence of the Vegagerdin road peoples colour coding scheme. Did we get through? Well, yes. But the snow was routinely deep enough to be up to our axles. Deep, wet snow is not a comfortable feeling, at 400m and surrounded by steep drops! Contrary to Alpine wisdom, it seems far more dangerous than ice. Sheet ice is a big standard Icelandic driving condition. Every colour code presumes some ice, except green. And even green is icy, in our experience. Wet snow, though, turns decent winter tyres into vaguely directional skis. Horrible, slooshy, more guided by loose intent than fully controlled.

Still, at least the weather was clear!

The THIRD mountain pass was notionally puce. Below black, in the absurdity scale, but the weather had begun to set in. It was bloody terrifying. There was a moment quite early on, when A said what I was thinking: “I can’t see the posts that mark the side of the road, and I can’t see the road either.” My logical sequitur was “…and so we should seriously consider turning back,” but A beat me to it by completing her sentence in no time flat: “Oh! I think I see the next ones. There! Carry on driving there!” And she was right. I could just about make out the next set of road posts, 10-15m ahead. When you can’t see fluorescent yellow markers covered in reflective tape at 15m, I still think it’s probably sensible to consider turning back. Even after surviving this pass. Which continued, I might add, for something like FORTY CHUFFING MINUTES of driving at 10ish mph through professionally vile roads with routine stops until posts appeared in what I can only really call a white-out. Windscreen wipers were kinda necessary, due to the blizzard. But only made things more complicated, as they placed an overlay of windscreen lines over the almost-invisible pattern of lines one was already trying to discern in the road (previous tyres) and air (snow banks by road / road posts).

A also owned later that she hadn’t been sure which side of the road some of the posts marked. (I had been confident, or wouldve stopped!) This worried me slightly more, as if you don’t know which side of the road marker you’re on, you don’t know if you’re on road or, well, ravine.

We have no pics of this stretch, bc we were both fully occupied with feeling the fear of God. Well, we have one. Of an Icelander providing us with some heart by overtaking us at about three times our speed, and ploughing a straight line forward.

We also met a young lass in what looked like a Nissan micra, going the other way and looking purposeful. Eight cars had been over in the thirteen preceding hours, going by the road authority website!

We thought we were all clear, as we rolled out into an incredible seascape. A plethora of mountain forms loomed on every side, and A had the impression that the patterns in the sky and clouds might be coming from daytime northern lights (?!). 

More amazing still, to our now-tarnished eyes, were the mile-long road built on a sea / coastal dyke, and the semi-glacial mini-inlets filled with seas of broken, jagged, mini ice sheets. 

HAVING believed that we had escaped the horrors, and that the road to Reykjavik was henceforth flat, the final mountain pass came as a bit of a surprise. We’d only thought there were three! By this time, the blizzard had properly taken off, and I’d seen the wind listed at 18mps on the “conditions” board before it. That’s 1mps faster than the wind that closed our route east, but the road was listed as blue – ice, not snow.

Sigh. Road conditions had changed by the time we reached a quarter of the way through. Howling gales. Snow drifts. Generally suboptimal conditions. It was less awful than the two previous passes, though it’s unexpectedness made it slightly worse. We’d thought we were through the mountains! Then WHAM! This was also a more reassuring pass, in terms of traffic. It’s always nice when a car comes the other way, bc it proves that someone has lived through the next bit. We’d seen four cars, in total, on the previous three passes. We saw four whole cars on this comparative motorway!

So, anyway, we lived. But find it v hard to tell whether we are bonkers cautious (Icelanders’ boldness in driving leaves us thinking so), or if the road authority live updates and Icelandic drivers are genuinely, grade-A…. enthusiasts. We have passed only one upside down 4×4 in eight days of extraordinarily intensive driving, so we may well be unnecessarily mongered by panic. Hmmmmmmm.

Respite came in the form of Borganes – a staging post some way north of Reykjavik. A very, very welcome sight! It had looked tiny when we first passed through. Now, after a week further round, it looked like a vast conurbation.

The museum of settlement there is really well reviewed so, despite being aware that daylight was running low, we stopped for food and the exhibition.

The food was hilarious. I was, perhaps, holding onto a bit of pent up adrenaline. As we walked in to the deserted restaurant, we politely waited by the WAIT HERE TO BE SHOWN TO YOUR SEATS sign. A waitress then explained that although all the seats were empty, they might be filled soon, so could we sit in a tiny corner table, squished between the only three other diners and a wall? Sadly, A literally couldn’t fit. So tried to move the chair and table and, in the process, did some mischief to each. A bit of table rolled away. The waitress began trying to fix the chair with one hand whilst fixing the table with the other, whilst explaining that the wood floors were 150 years old, with none of it quite working. And all of this in a tiny corner of a huge and deserted restaurant. It felt utterly surreal, and I was bent double & nearly in tears with silent laughter, desperately trying not to be noticed.

Table abandoned, we were moved to a more sensible place, and there dined richly on anything that wasn’t cooked in an oven (which was empty, but which might soon be filled with food for the tables that were also empty). I had lasagne (one of the few oven-free dishes?!), and A fish soup.

The family next to us were singing Icelandic nursery rhymes to a young lass with their party. Which was a lovely addition.

Then to the museum of the settlement, which consisted of a very informative audio tour, accompanied by 6ish exhibits. A really great way to capitalise on minimal space, and make a very small museum quite interesting! (Inexcusably, my powers of concentration had begun to wane) A also began to get fits of giggles at the (New Zealand) narrator’s enunciation of strings of j-containing place names, we dithered round the awesome shop, and a great time was had by all.

The roads back to Reykjavik remained snow-blown and vicious. A real reminder of how sketchy travel plans can be. Indeed, if we HAD made it all the way to the Easst, we would’ve been in trouble come today – all roads to Reykjavik from the South were closed for much of this morning. Driving was dismal, relentless, and involved many more wet snow drifts. As Reykjavik approached, we also began to build up tails of cars who wanted to drive at 90 (whilst we were only pushing 60-80), so regularly pulled aside to let them past. The loveliest bit of the drive home was a 7km sub-fjordic tunnel; the winds were 27mps (about 60mph / 93kph) for a fair bit of the way. Yuck.

And, finally, Reykjavik hove into sight.

A truly beautiful sight!

When last we left, we thought the capital was small. Now, we found ourselves marveling that any place should have so many houses and flats; that we drove past an large, UK-style out-of-town retail park (perhaps the only one in Iceland?!); that there were other cars on the road. And that there was a two-lane – three-lane, even! – road. The first we’d seen, I think, in eight days. The lights of the city were genuinely dazzling.

We booked at the The Lobster House (where “lobster” means langoustine) and headed down as, we suspect, the shabbiest patrons of the evening. The atmosphere aimed for unashamed chandelier-lauding opulence.

A had the fish platter – cod, monkfish, Arctic char, langoustine.

I had the meat platter – “sheep,” pork and horse (with langoustine).

I hate to say it, but the horse was actually sublime. I’d considered ordering a whole plate of horse, but A emphasised that this was verboten. I wasn’t sure it’d be too great, as I’d read about its strong taste. But it was… just… indescribably lovely. Tender, perhaps slightly beefy. Earthy. A took a pic of me sitting back after horse mouthful no.1.

I didn’t want to eat anything else, because I didn’t want to lose the sublime taste of horse.

Our waitress, fwiw, agreed.

Dessert was a bit kess spectacular, but decent nonetheless. Sat in the lobster house, this mornings mountain passes felt very distant indeed.

Bed now. Up for the airport in 2hrs….