Friday, July 28, 2023

Summer driving in Iceland will chill you

 Ah, summertime in Iceland. Pack your warm clothes on top. 

In Iceland in July we had several days of shirt-sleeve weather followed by days of icy breeze. This did nothing to diminish the awesome wonder of this land of fire and ice. 

Iceland: where glaciers sit atop volcanoes, ready to turn an eruption into a devastating instant flood. 

Iceland: where the rental car company gleefully emails you the route to visit the latest volcanic activity before advising that, after all, you should stay away. 

Especially with their car. 

Even if you survive, damaging it would be expensive, as many dangers are not covered by even the most comprehensive insurance. 

There are many ways you could damage your precious rental car in Iceland. 

Take the roads. Please.

Outside the one great capital city, Iceland's roads are narrow. Very narrow. Zero shoulders.

Instead of the hoped-for extra margin along the sides there is typically a steep drop into a ravine, if not over over a cliff into the sea.

The roads are one lane in each direction. Tour buses, ubiquitous, take up every inch of their lane, leaving YOU to provide the precious separation so important at a 100-mph approach speed.

Leave too much room and you'll put a wheel over the outside edge and head into the ravine.

View of Iceland coast from a car.
Roads in Iceland lack shoulders. Run off the edge and you are a goner. Notice the lack of striping.

We actually saw a car in the ravine, clearly not put there intentionally. A driver was visible through the windshield. We about-faced and pulled up as close as we dared to offer help.

"The police are on the way," the calm woman at the wheel responded, waving us on. I admired her icy composure.

Now add a little more challenge. How about having a cloud form over that narrow road, slowing you down, but not the buses?

Now stir in some cold, to fog your windshield. Add rain.

Now add the sudden and total disappearance of any road striping at all! Stay in your lane, although you have no idea where it is. Opposing traffic might suddenly appear from around that next blind corner or over that rise in the road.

Now, for the final stroke: marbles. Sprinkle the road liberally with gravel. Big, loose stones that act as ball bearings.

In fact, replace the paving with gravel entirely. Your front-wheel-drive rental car now gets squirrelly, searching for traction, finding it first with one wheel, then the other. Only inches to spare, remember!

We did see motorcyclists and even bicyclists on these roads. It was a wonder that the cold and blasting wind didn't deter them from even mounting up. But they pressed on, making me feel like a real wimp for having heat and windshield wipers.

The one-lane, take-your-turn bridges are not a problem. Drivers politely wait their turn. But the one-lane, take-your-turn tunnels, miles in length, are sobering (there are turn-outs).

Iceland is expensive, true. But we never had a bad meal, accommodations were comfortable and Scandinavian efficient whether fancy or plain. Everyone, including other drivers, was gracious. Reserved, but friendly.

And, of course, and all important, everyone we spoke to spoke back in English. Iceland has a small population, but it's augmented by tourists and the foreign workers brought in to serve the tourists. Of necessity, foreign tongues are spoken, particularly English, from what I could gather.

Iceland: Scenery, yes.

Iceland: Fascinating museums about Vikings, the herring industry and Icelandic history, yes.

Iceland: Bubbling volcanic hot spots, yes.

Iceland: A relaxing dunk in an open-air bath heated by lava, yes.

Iceland: Despite the frequently cold temperatures and blasting winds, it's almost always sunny. In fact, the sun never really sets, in summer.

Iceland never gives up. It's said that the national saying is "Everything will work out." 

It certainly did for us. 

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