Greenland really is

Well, not so much the east coast. By a quirk of ocean and atmospheric currents, the east coast of Greenland (facing Europe) is barren and rocky, though quite impressive with countless glaciers marching down the craggy mountains toward the fjords. The glaciers deposit icebergs into the water, each one a one-of-a-kind abstract sculpture. For most of the year, sea ice prevents ships from reaching the coast. The few inhabitants are cut-off for months from the outside world. Our ship didn’t get a chance to land there but we enjoyed the view and naming the icebergs like a Rorschach test.

The harsh weather from the east is blocked by the mountains and icecap of Greenland which act like a wind-break to protect the calmer and warmer west coast. We had a chance to experience some of those winds as they were funneled though a gap between islets at the southern tip of the main island. It was challenging to keep our cameras steady to photograph the beautiful scenery with 80mph gusts slapping our hands (and occasionally a painful slap to the face by a wind-whipped coat collar). Perhaps it wasn’t wise to be out in the weather but it was fun to experience such strong winds in a relatively safe environment.

Just around the corner from the southern tip but tucked safely away on the west coast is Qaqortoq. It is the fourth largest town in Greenland with a population of about 3000 (we will visit numbers 1, 2 and 3 shortly). The first thing you notice about Qaqortoq and other Greenlandic towns are the colors — all the buildings are painted in a crazy quilt of bright colors, like someone spilled a bag of Skittles on the steep hills rising up from the sea. When towns were established in the 18th century by the Danish colonizers, the buildings were color coded. The doctor’s house as yellow, shops were red and blue was for workshops. Today it is a free-for-all, though hospitals are still usually yellow out of habit or homage. We also finally saw the famous green of Greenland, with many grass and flowers mixed among the houses and rocky outcrops.

Despite the remote and dramatic location, the feel is of a Scandinavian town with all the modern conveniences. The supermarkets are piled high with fresh produce and everything else you can imagine. The harbors of southwestern Greenland are ice-free all year round and are kept well supplied with frequent cargo ships from Denmark. The roads are nicely paved, though with only 90 miles of roads in the entire island you can’t get very far. None of the towns are connected to each other by road and the harbor is full of small boats, the primary means of getting around.

We never mastered the Greenlandic language.

We had a brief city tour of Qaqortoq with a very unlikely guide: a middle aged woman born and bred in the American south who moved to Greenland after marrying a Greenlander. The two met in an online chat group in the 90’s and became friends over the years. Eight years ago they met in person for the first time when he visited Florida. After a whirlwind romance, she was engaged and moving to Greenland. As a tour guide, her facts were a little confused but her wide-eyed enthusiasm for Greenland was heartening and infectious.

Our guide Katy showing one of the many new art installations around town.

Qaqortoq was also the center of the largest Viking settlement in Greenland (though technically we should say “Norse” rather than “Viking” once they settled down and were no longer a warrior culture). The Norse settled Greenland in the 10th century and mysteriously vanished around the 15th century. A number of theories have been floated about what happened to the Greenland Norse, from disease to climate change to war with the Inuit who were settling southwestern Greenland at about the same time. But none of these theories are supported by archeological or written evidence. It is possible they just trickled back to Iceland or Scandinavia without drama. The last written evidence of the Norse in Greenland was of a marriage in the Hvalsey church, near Qaqortoq. The ruins of the stone church are fairly intact and we visited the site. Tall grass dotted with tiny blueberry bushes just inches high (yum!) cover the rocky slopes around the church.

Iceland: land of fire and ice…and tourists

On our first day on the mainland of Iceland, we visited two of the biggest tourist areas on the island: the downtown pedestrian core of the capital Reykjavik and a park outside of town that is the original site of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Our first impression of the island was: wow, people are right, Iceland is seriously over-touristed! In both places, we were forced to shuffle along behind a sea of other tourists from all over the world, like we were in an arctic Disneyland. On day two, we experienced a completely different Iceland, one with endless empty roads and quiet neighborhoods. As the cliché in every tourism brochure from every place in the world says: “a land of contrasts.”

Despite the crowds, Thingvellir (the site of the original Althing) was quite interesting and beautiful. The Althing is the longest continuously functioning parliament in the world but moved from this original site in the 1700’s and today no visible signs of it remain. Instead, you see a geography lesson writ large. A giant crack in the earth runs through the site, the spreading gap between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. Interpretive signs say that the site was chosen as a meeting place because of its central location and abundant resources but surely the imposing topography was an attraction as well. Grassy plains and lakes surround the cliffs of the tectonic canyon, which itself is filled with lush grass where it isn’t paved over for the thousands of tourists disgorged from the tour buses parked in the acres of overflowing parking lots (plural).

The center of Reykjavik is a tourist circus of souvenir shops and cafes. I suspect the locals avoid it when possible during the summer, as we do the Pike Place Market in Seattle. And somehow they manage to have traffic jams in the most sparsely populated country in Europe (unless you count our next destination, Greenland). Bookending the main tourist street are two architecturally impressive public buildings. On one end is the Hallgrímskirkja church, whose tall stone tower echoes the country’s mountains. It is on top of a hill and a helpful landmark visible from everywhere in the city. Inside, the music from a giant pipe organ echoed around the circulating tourists. At the other end of town on the waterfront is the very modern Harpa Concert Hall. We only saw the outside and the lobby but its soaring honeycomb of glass was made us wish we had time to see more.

In Reykjavik we met up with our friends Dave and Amy who were old-hands at Iceland and they planned our escape from the tourist throngs. It turns out that even a short way out of town (unless you are heading to the “Golden Circle” of the most celebrated tourist sites) the traffic dissolves and you can see a less hectic side of Iceland, with quaint villages and uncrowded natural wonders. We were the only people at one road-side steaming/boiling mud pond and enjoyed other volcanic attractions and a giant waterfall with a very manageable number of other sightseers.

Back in Reykjavik outside the tourist quarter, we enjoyed a blog-worthy meal at a nouvelle-Icelandic restaurant that overlooked a city park. And what trip to Reykjavik would be complete without a visit to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in a slightly gritty neighborhood (by tidy Icelandic standards) on the outskirts of downtown. It is a gruesome personal collection of dried, pickled or otherwise preserved penises from every species of mammal native to Iceland. On second thought, maybe a trip to Iceland would have been complete without it.

A hot spot in the Atlantic: The Westman Islands

There are pluses and minuses to living in one of the most volcanically active places in the world, the Westman Islands just off the southern coast of Iceland. On the plus side, the locals had a front row seat to the eruption of the unpronounceable Eyjafjallajökull volcano in 2010. Luckily the wind was blowing away from town so the only inconvenience was that it shutdown air travel over much of Europe for several weeks. They also were able to watch Surtsey, one of the most significant new islands formed in recorded history, rise from the sea in 1963. On the down side, in 1973 a volcanic crack unexpectedly opened up just outside of town that forced the sudden evacuation of the entire population of 5,000 and the loss of 400 homes to the flowing lava and rain of pumice stones. But even that had a plus: a square mile of new waterfront property!

Where the town and lava flow meet

The people returned after two years of exile and we arrived for our visit on a beautiful sunny day 44 years later. A new museum sits where the town meets the lava flow. It was built around a house that was covered in pumice during the eruption and recently excavated, its preserved contents from 1973 still in place, like a modern Pompeii.

Some of the recent lava is still barren of life but most of 5-square-mile Heimaey island (the largest island among the group) is lush, green and sheepy, with dramatic cliffs reminiscent of the Faroes. Our mission on Heimaey was to see the puffin colony, the largest in the Atlantic. Puffins nest in deep burrows dug into the grassy cliffs on the opposite side of the island from the town. The island tour we were on had 30 minutes scheduled for the puffins but we decided to let the tour leave without us and we spent a couple extra hours there. The puffins did not disappoint, even though we couldn’t get too close to their steep nesting sites. They buzzed around like frantic giant hummingbirds, heading out to sea and coming back with mouthfuls of eels to feed their babies hidden in the burrows. It was lovely to sit quietly on top of the cliff after our tour group left, watching their comings and goings.

For those of you who can’t get enuff of the puffs, we have many more photos below and a few videos:

We planned to take a taxi back to town but the three taxis on the island were all booked so we decided to walk. Not making much visible progress across the windswept grasslands in 20 minutes, Laurel shook a thumb at a passing car and we hitched a ride. We happened to get a very good driver, in fact he’s the island’s driving instructor! He was also the high school Sociology and Psychology teacher, which shows quite a diverse curriculum for a remote school with only a couple hundred students. His perfect English was honed as a high school exchange student in Manhattan…Kansas.

The town itself is tidy but fairly spartan, as you might expect from an out of the way fishing port that was largely rebuilt in the 1970’s. We enjoyed popping into a few small shops and a cafe run by a jaded French expat but we didn’t spend much time in town. More exciting city life hopefully awaits at our next stop, Reykjavik.

P.S. About the name, the Westman Islands (or Vestmannaeyjar as they say in Icelandic). “West-men” is what the Vikings called people from Ireland, which is west of the Vikings’ home base in Scandinavia. The Vikings had some settlements in Ireland but also enjoyed plundering and taking slaves from there. During the early settlement of Iceland in the 800’s, a group of Irish slaves in Iceland revolted and fled to these islands… where they were later found and all slaughtered. So the name basically means “the place where we killed a bunch of Irish people.” If you’ve ever read any of the ancient Icelandic Viking sagas, they pretty much all end with a bloodbath. And begin with one. And have a few in the middle.

The Faroe Islands: grass underfoot and overhead

Depending on the weather and your mood on the day you arrive in the Faroe Islands, you might describe them as “windswept, treeless and gloomy” or “lush, dramatic and charming.” We definitely fell into the later camp.

See if you can spot Laurel waving on the cliff in a white jacket.

The Faroe Islands are between Scotland and Iceland and home to 50,000 hardy souls descend from the Vikings who settled the islands in the 9th century. The grassy islands are kept treeless by the relentless scouring of hurricane-force winter gales and the munching of 80,000 of the fluffiest sheep you can imagine, grazing nonchalantly on the precarious slopes. While breezy, the weather was mostly sunny and warm for our three day stay. When someone in our tour van asked to have the air conditioning turned on, our guide said it was the first time in her 30 years of guiding that she had that request in the normally chilly islands. Despite her perfect English (like all the locals we met), she struggled to remember the word for air conditioning.

Although the islands have well-maintained roads and several impressive mountain-piercing and sub-sea tunnels, we were glad that someone else was doing the driving. The roads are often one lane (sometimes even through tunnels) and frequently wind along the edges of cliffs. To add a little more challenge, dense fog can blow in suddenly. We only experienced that once during our charmed visit but the thought of driving on a one lane (but two way!) cliff-hugging road in a white-out is probably more adventure than our white knuckles could handle.

When you can turn your eyes and camera away from the vivid green fjords, the visual highlight is the sod-roofed houses. Some are historic old buildings but the sod roofs are also part of their modern architecture. Many of the houses and small businesses are topped with beautiful long grass. This is a sign of how proud the locals are of their traditions, which is tied to the bristling defense of their independence from the parent country Denmark. The Faroe Islands have won considerable autonomy since WWII after a period when Denmark pushed hard to assimilate the Faroese in the Danish culture. Though from the same original stock as the Danes, over the centuries the Faroese have evolved their own tongue-twisting language and culture. For you video fans, here is a roof rippling in the wind.

Though they honor their traditions, it is a thoroughly modern country. The capital of Torshavn has trendy restaurants and stylish shops. The infrastructure is top-rate, probably in better shape than Seattle despite the harsh environment. But it is sized for a small population. Several hotel construction projects are going on downtown, signaling a future surge in the level of tourism which will strain the existing resources. The locals are already complaining about how “crowded” the most picturesque villages and hikes have become. By this they mean maybe a dozen tourists’ cars, which is pretty pristine by normal measures but at times we did feel like the tourists (us included) were overrunning the petite villages. It is will be increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between the growth in tourism and the desire of both the locals and the tourists to see the unspoiled beauty of the islands.