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Jules Verne's epic journey began in Iceland's frozen volcano


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Jules Verne's epic journey began in Iceland's frozen volcano
MENACING MOUNTAIN - Snaefellsjokull is an active volcano that anchors the Snaefellsnes peninsula on Iceland. Jules Verne, author of ''Journey to the Center of the Earth,'' chose this place to locate his book, and started a myth that through one of the volcano's craters, one could descend on a journey to the center of the Earth. CNS Photo by Steve Bergsman.
I arrived in Budir in the summer of 2006 and the town was long gone. All that remained was a famous black church built sometime in the 1840s. The only thing picturesquely situated was a fetching accommodation called Hotel Budir, where I stayed.

Harry Hardwigg, one assumed, stayed with locals - just for a night. The next day, he and his uncle, professor Hardwigg, left to make the climb up Snaefellsjokull, the active volcano anchoring the peninsula. Harry's reason for visiting Snaefellsnes was a lot different than mine. According to professor Hardwigg, through one of Snaefellsjokull's craters an intrepid person could descend on a journey to the center of the Earth.

I, of course, just wanted to see the sights.

I've never read an explanation as to why Jules Verne, the author of "Journey to the Center of the Earth," chose Snaefellsnes to locate his book, published in 1864, but he certainly got his research correct. Harry, Verne's protagonist, when traveling the peninsula, headed west. He tells the reader, "The range of mountains was prolonged indefinitely like a great system of natural fortifications."

On an island of unbelievably dramatic topography, Snaefellsnes stands out for its compacted extremes. The southern edge of the peninsula skirts a wide bay; the water laps flatlands, which stretch no more than a mile to a huge, natural wall of rock that rises in many places straight up. The escarpment continues the peninsula's length, broken occasionally by craters, crevices and waterfalls too numerous to mention, until it reaches Snaefellsjokull, which rises 4,715 feet. Although the height isn't great, the mountain is covered by a glacier, giving it a dramatically eerie feel, especially as it tends to disappear in the thick fogs of the North Atlantic.

New Agers believe Snaefellsjokull to be one of the seven power centers of the world. I divide Snaefellsnes into four geographic zones. The first is the eastern pasturelands, threaded by a two-lane highway. Then comes the picturesque coast, stretching from Budir through the small tourist settlements of Arnarstapi and Hellnar. Soon afterward, the blacktop enters the Snaefellsjokull National Park, reduces to a gravel road and turns north around the western slope of Snaefellsjokull. Finally, the road hits the north shore and civilization returns. Numerous fishing villages dot the northern coast, but many tourists stop at Olafsvik then cut back to the south on a well-maintained road traversing Snaefellsnes' mountain spine.

Obviously, one of the key things to do in the region is head for the summit, which can be reached on foot or on snowmobiles piloted by local entrepreneurs.

No recent guidebooks mention hikes to the center of the Earth, so I opted instead to hike around Budir. It was less adventuresome than Harry's journey, considerably shorter and probably more pleasant. While I didn't have to contend with prehistoric dangers, I did actually touch the past.

The land around Budir and, indeed, all along Snaefellsnes' southwestern coast consists of an ancient lava flow. Lava cools erratically, creating surfaces tormented by crevices and pockmarked with caves and depressions. Around Budir this was a thing of beauty, because over the centuries a carpet of vegetation covered the rockiness. Blanketing the lava were ferns, mosses, marsh grass and tiny flowers of purple (wood crane's bill), red and pink (creeping thyme) and white (sea campion).

Just past Newfound Gap is the 7-mile Clingmans Dome Road that climbs to within 1/2 mile of Clingmans Dome, the highest peak in the Smokies and third highest in the East. From the parking area at the end of the road, take a 1/2-mile trail to an observation tower at the "top of old Smoky." Often parodied, this is one folk song that manages to stick with us from childhood to old age. You'll be humming the tune, if not outright singing, as you approach. Clingmans Dome Road is closed from Dec. 1 to March 31.

Bring your binoculars if you plan to conduct a serious bear search. The park has a notable black bear population, numbering around 1,800. The big question: Will you find any wearing a tie and a porkpie hat, reminiscent of a certain cartoon bear?

The main park entrance is on the Tennessee side of the mountains, through the smallish but busy town of Gatlinburg.

Gatlinburg may be small, but it's still full of tourist attractions. From the midst of the dense woodland of the park into the heart of Gatlinburg requires a mental transition. While it may only be 30 minutes in actual time, it can take your brain a bit longer to assimilate to the change. Even so, a boulder-filled mountain stream runs right through downtown, adding a distinctive Alpine atmosphere.

The most dramatic lava remains on the coast can be found about a 15-minute drive to the west, were Snaefellsnes abuts the North Atlantic. Here, two monoliths hold sentry like Norse gods of old. About five stories tall, these huge stone towers are actually lava plugs.

A number of trails emanate from Budir, and I randomly selected one that took me in the direction of the shoreline. After walking about 30 minutes, I arrived at small beach where a cut had been made by ancient fishermen to haul boats ashore. Nearby were a number of archaeological remains from the Viking fishermen who built habitats around the beach. Foundations and walls of primitive abodes were clearly discernible.

Further north in the heart of the national park, a wide lava beach was accessible by road and short trail. The black-stone beach was also protected by tall, weirdly shaped monoliths. Here, too, there were still signs of Vikings, who resided on the peninsula 1,000 years ago.

A well-maintained gravel road traverses the length of the park between the coast and western flanks of Snaefellsjokull. The unique occurrences of nature's beauty are manifest, for there are enough craters, waterfalls, lava flows, beaches, rivulets and ponds - not to mention remains of old settlements - to keep a visitor busy over the course of a long day.

For Harry, the journey through the center of the Earth ended with a volcanic ejection into the Italian countryside. My ride through Snaefellsnes ended in Olafsvik. It wasn't quite Italy, but I did find a place to have a good cappuccino.

IF YOU GO

I flew Icelandair ( www.icelandair.com), which has numerous U.S. gateways. In Reykjavik, I stayed at the Hotel Fron ( www.hotelfron.is), a small hotel on the city's main shopping street, and the Nordica Hotel ( www.icehotels.is), a full-service hotel, with spa, on the outskirts of downtown. In Snaefellsnes, the charming Hotel Budir ( www.budir.is) boasts surprisingly excellent cuisine.

Steve Bergsman is a freelance travel writer.

© Copley News Service
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