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One person’s news blip is another person’s major revelation.
Iceland, my dear, dear, Iceland has taken a loan from Russia in the amount of $5 billion dollars to help offset its potential banking collapse.
Now let’s be clear that this was an option of last resort for Iceland since its Western Allies weren’t ponying up some dough. And this is a HUGE mistake on behalf of the US. I won’t comment for the UK or the rest of Europe, but if we are in fact, and I think we can all agree on this, on the verge of brand spanking new Cold War, then militarily speaking, we should have found a way to help out Iceland. Period.
A quick review of the facts for a moment, shall we? As I’ve been writing about for over a year now, Russia has launched illegal flights over the island nation, claimed sea floor for Russia dangerously close to Iceland’s territorial waters, and they’re building a scary new submarine not all that far from the most strategic point of the North Atlantic. And now Iceland has been put in the position of having to borrow money from them?
Where the hell is the US strategic policy on this one?
As I previously quoted, Iceland is like a revolver pointed at the back of the head of the person not holding the gun.
And since America stepped out of Keflavik air base in Iceland in 2006, they are wide open. I hope that when Iceland is need of a second loan, and it is looking as though it will be necessary, I hope the US smartens up and finds a way to help them out.
Among all the other things we can’t afford right now, this is another item on the list.
And of course I speak as an American on the topic and what Iceland means to us strategically. Hildi, I hope you’re out there. I’d love your input on this.
I’m thankful to live in an area of the world where natural disasters are few and far between. And while I think I can handle tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, and maybe even wildfires, I take for granted day in and day out that ground I walk on will stay right the hell where I expect it to be. I was in LA shortly after the 1994 earthquake and that made an impression on me like nothing has before or since.
So I am a little freaked when I had just come home to an email from a friend met in Iceland who informed me of the 6.1 earthquake that hit the country today. Really hoping the best for everyone over there and that all is okay.
Hildigunnur, if you read this, drop a line and let us know how you are!
So this is the last entry of the impossibly long saga of the Iceland trip. I think I’ve spent more time writing about it than I actually spent in country, yet, I feel like I barely covered all that occurred. It’s hard to stop writing about it. Maybe because it means my time there is really over and I’ll have to go back to ranting about the nonsense that is my life.
The final day didn’t hold much. We headed out early from Budir and drove the two hours back to Reykjavik. All along the way, Sailor and I discovered yet more sites and places to add to the list of “Things to See in Iceland”. That fact alone can sum up my Iceland experience: I arrived with a list, crossed off most of it, and left with dozens of more places/things to see in the future. I doubt it will ever end.
The shame of it, as I have come to discover, is that too many people view Iceland as an outdoor wonderland (which it is), and basically stop there. Tourists arrive in country and they want to see glaciers, northern lights, ride horses, go to the Blue Lagoon, and poke around Reykjavik. And all of these things are fabulous adventures, do not misunderstand me on this, but all of those activities barely scratch the surface of what I have come to love about this country. The culture, the history, the language, the people, they run so deep and are so complex, they deserve further investigation, a better understanding, and hence, more attention from tourists. If you go to Iceland and miss the saga sites, hell, if you never even read a saga, then you’re really missing out on some of what is best about this nation.
When you do visit Iceland, do yourself a huge favor: get lost, completely and utterly. Most of what was best on this last trip occurred when we got out of the car and turned an unexpected corner, had a challenging conversation, or ate a socially and politically controversial animal. See the evolution of this culture. Marvel at it. People joke about how tough it is for people to live in Australia since it’s a land that is hostile towards its inhabitants. Well, Iceland has volcanoes that will spew hot molten lava on you and not think twice. It will bathe you in a darkness that will feel endless or blind you with a sunlight that can drive you mad. And yet, Icelanders have harnessed the power of the earth that is literally moving beneath their feet to create energy, light, and heat. It’s the story of Prometheus only with a happier ending. That is, of course, unless the Puffins turn rabid and decide to attack, Hitchcock style. But the point I’m trying to make is that these people are tough. The land demands this to be so. Don’t let the eyeglasses fool you.
So we did not get to LazyTown. I emailed the business offices and never received word back. But a wanton and kamikaze style future visit would not be unheard of. I had a chance to watch a few episodes while in country and can see why kids and parents dig it. Watch out Sportacus, I will eventually drop by for a visit. You’re officially now on “the list”.
We briefly stopped back in Reykjavik for some souvenirs. A quick visit to a knitting center for some of that fabulous Icelandic wool for Grandma, and the obligatory visit to the tourist trash shop for books and t-shirts. But the piece de resistance! of crazy little gifts are to be found in a downtown and funky antique shop called Frida Fraenka. Top to bottom, backwards to front, it is filled the wildest and most unexpected stuff you will ever see. I must of spent a good 30 minutes alone just going through a drawer full of old 1940 style staplers. Glass buttons, art-deco style lamps, old tools, old 1950’s cookie tins, I could have died there. But we gathered our goods, grabbed one more hot dog for the road, and headed for the Keflavik airport.
And of course, since I am married to a sailor, what would a trip to this country be without crossing paths with a Viking ship? The Islendingur is a recreation of an 1100 years old vessel and was sailed from Reykjavik to Greenland to L’Anse aux Meadows, the first European homestead in North America, in Newfoundland. She’s now permanently parked a little ways outside the airport and is in some rough shape, but then I suppose it would be wrong to assume that the Vikings were concerned with bringing a boat “Back to Bristol”. Nonetheless, she is a sight to behold and she has sailed the seas, so she has nothing to prove to anyone. That fact alone makes Islendingur a sight worth seeing. Oh, and if you happen to drive there, the little path alongside the road that looks like a convenient short cut? It’s a sidewalk. Don’t make our mistake and actually drive down it.
So that’s it. Return car. Check in. Go through security. Duty Free Shop frenzy. Refund on VAT purchases. And we’re off. A glimpse below of Greenland, then Labrador, Newfoundland, Maine, then Boston. And it’s over. But we’re far from done. Two visits in two years and we’ve come nowhere close to seeing all that this country can offer. But that’s okay. We most certainly will be back. Again. I have a list after all.
A member of British Parliament once referred to Iceland as a revolver pointed at the back of the head of the person not holding the gun. I think the war games of the North Atlantic during the Cold War era prove this point beyond a shadow of a doubt. That, and Britain “invading”, quite unceremoniously, during WWII, as later did America, under NATO. Of course, America recently left just as unceremoniously, but that’s another topic for another entry.
Iceland is a land founded by Vikings, who let’s face it, weren’t the nicest people to roam the planet, and the atrocities Icelanders inflicted on each other during the Icelandic Civil War of the 13th century, could give anyone in their right mind nightmares for a month. But modern Iceland is a land of peace. Icelanders maintain a policy of neutrality. I believe the closest they have ever come to actual conflict as a modern nation was during The Cod Wars with Britain in the 1970’s, and not to belittle the seriousness of it, but I’ve seen scarier hostilities between drunk Maine lobstermen over cut lines to lobster pots.
So how is it that Iceland evolved from the fearsome Viking warrior to peaceful fashionistas in European shoes and hip eyeglasses? Time? Isolation? Cold climate? All of the above? They certainly value peace. Life is short, winter is long, and if you’re all going to get through it, you better learn to get along. And they have. It’s an impossibly old culture by American standards. 1,200 years. They certainly know who they are and what they value as a nation. As such, predictability in itself is something that holds value. America, by contrast, is a very young country and our national values seem to change to with the political season. The one constant we hold is freedom, but the greater question is: are freedom and peace necessarily compatible? This is something Icelanders want to know.
Sailor Man and I had the numerous occasions on the trip to speak with Icelanders about politics and I couldn’t help but be struck with how keenly tuned they are to the American presidential race. Of course it’s naive of me to feel that way. Despite the present turmoil in our country, the US maintains the ability to lash out, much a like wounded animal. And Iceland, positioned as they are in the world, in the middle the very cold and lonely Atlantic, certainly doesn’t want to be on the receiving end of that transaction. Really, who would?
As anyone who reads this blog regularly can attest, I have more than just a passing fascination with Mr. Vladimir Putin and Mother Russia these days. I made a point of asking Geir, parish priest at Snorrastofa, what he thought about Russia claiming ocean floor that is dangerously close to Iceland, and illegal Russian military flights over their airspace, and what feels like a resurgence of the Cold War. Was he concerned about the Russians? His answer was no. Russians are Russians and you can always rely on a Russian to behave as one. Interpret that as you may, I’m not touching it. Americans, however, are highly unpredictable and he feels more wary of the US and its actions than anything Putin might throw at Iceland.
I think he has a point. I have to admit I have trouble recognizing what I thought was my home country many times over the last seven years. But again, America is young. Sure, we fought for freedom as an independent nation over 200 years ago, but then we fell apart not even 100 years after that. Did we really unite over our own Civil War? I think the Civil Rights Movement would say otherwise, as would the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. I think we have periods of brilliance, such as WWI, WWII and the Marshall Plan, but then we fall apart over Vietnam. We start crawling out of that hole and then fall right back into another. Yes, we make mistakes, unfortunately, they’re enormous and have global implications.
Most Americans may not know this, but through NATO, American has been responsible for Iceland’s defense since WWII. So if we’re going to do something to muddy the waters, they have a right to be concerned and certainly ask questions.
And questions I was asked! A lot of uncomfortable questions! But I’m certainly not complaining. I enjoyed the discourse. Everyone needs the chance to view their country through another country’s eyes. Stretch the brain a bit. Of course, it provides no real answers, just more questions. I just hope that’s enough in the meantime. And I really hope I didn’t accidentally renegotiate some international treaties that one night we had waaaaaaay too much to drink out in Budir. Because I vaguely remember agreeing to something and woke up with a strange pen on the desk the next morning. Iceland is like Erie in that the degrees of separation is not 6 as much as it is more like a degree of 1. You have to be careful who you speak to.
And for the record, for any Icelander reading this, you certainly can’t rely on just the opinion of this American. I mean, come on, I came over there to hunt trolls, see rocks, scream “Immigrant Song” at inappropriate moments, and see the Phallological Museum (which disappointingly moved out of Reykjavik…damn guidebook). How seriously could you possibly take me? I’m as “brilliant” as the next person after a few smart cocktails, but really, get that grain of salt out…please…
It is a clear and brilliant day outside. Albeit with periods of brisk winds, it’s the Northern Atlantic after all, it looks to be good day for a drive. Sailor Man and I head off in our trusty Focus. We leave Grundarfjordur with the watchful eye of Kirkjufell “church mountain” following us and can not help but linger. We’re at a roadside park for a while taking pictures and watching a local resident out for an early Sunday horseback ride. I’m hesitant to leave, but it’s our last full day and we have this crazy plan of seeing the sites of the peninsula kamikaze-style before having to decide whether to head all the way back to Reykjavik for the night, or find some local place to stay. The radio, as well as the sun, fades in and out depending on where we are in relation to the mountains. No one is out on the road this early hour and again, we seem to have the Snaefellsnes “snow mountain peninsula” to ourselves. It is so clear and so bright outside, I have to wear my darkest sunglasses and even then I am having problems with glare.
*per usual, double click on the pictures for a better look.
20 minutes from Grundarfjordur and we enter the fishing village of Olafsvik. The guidebook provides another depressing and useless description of a town that does not seem to fit with what we are seeing before us. Charming houses are terraced into the hills, and like Grundarfjordur, Olafsvik has spectacular views. A random cafe sporting a Lord of the Rings theme was unfortunately closed. The town is primarily known as one of the oldest trading centers in Iceland, has a great folk museum,and whale watching tours. There’s also a very modern church with interesting architecture that I would have liked to get a closer look at, but we’ll save it for another time. Overall, Olafsvik is definitely a town I can see returning to and getting to know better.
Cultural Reference Alert! Jules Verne, French author of many classics such as Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and Around the World in 80 Days, writes of Snaefellsjokull “snow mountain glacier” in Journey to the Center of the Earth. The volcano/glacier serves as the starting point for the German Professor Lindenbrock, his nephew, and the Icelandic guide with the oddly German name of Hans, on their journey. Aside from Verne, JRR Tolkein was greatly influenced by Iceland and Old Norse culture. Looking around the peninsula, you can see why. It would be very easy to imagine Iceland serving as the backdrop for the up coming Hobbit movie.
We’re nearing the end of the peninsula and the next town we stop in is Hellissandur. Guidebook, aside, because I’m fed up with it and its dismissive tone, we decide to stop and have a peek. The village is completely surrounded by lava field and the town’s main attraction is a fisherman’s museum of two cottages with turf roofs. The lava field behind the museum’s grounds extends up the hill and beyond.Sailor Man and I decide to get out of the car and have a peak, which I’m so glad we did. In the center of the lava field is a soccer, excuse me, “football” pitch. It’s so random and unexpected, I have to add this to my list of what I love about Iceland and it’s people. This pitch is tightly hugged by lava rock which most certainly will end your existence if you travel too far outside of bounds. I swear, only in Iceland is such a pitch possible.I do wish that Sailor and used the wide-angle lens because the picture we have simply doesn’t do justice to how utterly cool this site is.
We a have a brief but decisive imaginary game (I win) and walk down into the museum ground proper. Behind one of the truf houses lives three large stones that were used to judge a man’s fitness to be a fisherman back in the day. I took a few pictures of Sailor Man attempting to lift one of the stones, but the picture has mysteriously not made it from the camera and onto my computer. No matter, the stones were frozen to the ground and Sailor did get very far with them.
We’re just outside Hellisandur when Gisli, owner of the Hotel Framnes, flags us down. We pull over to receive the luggage I forgot at the hotel. Thanks again, Gisli, I can not say it enough.
Our next stop is the beach at Djupalonssandur. It’s breathtakingly beautiful here with lava rocks that have been polished as smooth as glass by the tide. Ladies, you want to know where the stones used in spa treatments come from, this is your place. I grab a handful of them as a souvenir and dearly hope Iceland doesn’t have the same superstitions the Hawaiians do about taking that which belongs to Pele. The remnants of a boat wreck from 1914 litter the beach and signs ask that you not disturb them. Also, the rest of the local “lifting stones” are here for those willing to test their strength old school style. We have fun playing on the beach for awhile, building stone monuments to the fallen sailors and being chased by the incoming tide. There’s natural rocks formations in abundance to practice your photography skills and I can’t help but think this beach must get hotter than hell in the summer under a 24 hour sun. My calves are on fire from tying to run up and down the beach. It’s quite a workout when your boots are sinking into the volcanic sand.
Leaving the beach, Snaefellsjokull looms over us, although we can’t see the glacier properly due to the snow cover. Back on the road, a dual rock formation in the distance grabs our attention and we drive out to see them. We’re briefly distracted by the sight of a lighthouse and detour over that way instead. But from the lighthouse, we actually have a better view of these rocks. Pouring through the multitude of information we had managed to pick up throughout this trip, we find that the rocks are volcanic plugs and in the distance are basalt cliffs. I’m still not adjusted to the scale of Iceland. Objects definitely seem smaller than they appear. These columns, which appear fairly insignificant in the distance, are positively enormous up close. The columns are known as Londrangar. The larger of the two pillars is called the “Christian Pillar” and the smaller one is monickered the “Heathen Pillar”. Personally, I think the heathen pillar is getting a bad rap, per usual, but the view is excellent and you can see the basalt cliffs in the distance which is in the general vicinity of Hellnar, the next town which we plan to visit.
Hellnar, year round population of 9 souls. Nothing looks open and no one seems to be around. There’s a “green” hotel here, a scattering of vacation cottages and not much else except the obligatory white church with red roof and awesome scenery. I’m of the opinion that it is impossible to take a bad picture in this country. Seriously, if your pictures turn out poorly, there’s either something wrong with your camera or something wrong with you.
We’re traveling the underside of the peninsula at this point and we’re taking the suggestion offered to us to stop in Budir for a cup of coffee. Budir is an former fishing village that tragically burned down sometime ago. The truly magnificent Hotel Budir and historic church are all that remain. It’s a lonely spot on the planet, let me tell you. The expanse of lava field is largest we’ve yet seen and are also rumored to be lousy with leprechauns, which of course, makes it my kind of place.
The hotel doesn’t look like much from the outside and is basically modern twin buildings joined a breezeway, but don’t let that fool you. Once inside, prepare to be bowled over. Shamefully, Sailor and I were too dumbstruck to take any pictures, save the view outside our room window. It is lush, lush, lush and sitting in their parlor, overlooking the bay while the tide came in, it was a pretty easy decision to stay for the night even despite the surprise arrival of a family party of 14, complete with oodles of rug rats, that will be staying the night as well.
Up a slight hill from the hotel is the hauntingly gorgeous church which dates back to 1703. It’s unusual for an Icelandic church in that the wood it painted black with pitch, which is a mixture of pine tar and linseed oil (thank you, Sailor), but makes for a striking picture against the backdrop of the mountains. Also unusual, a rock wall, my favorite, of lava stones and turf surround the graveyard that has some surprising recent additions to its inhabitant community.
Trails abound through the area and Sailor Man and I take advantage of the light that is left to go off and explore. Hiking through a lava field is no easy venture. You really have to mind your feet and do not by any means get too caught up in the views. I’m not kidding when I say this is a matter of safety. If you were hiking in Ireland and took a tumble, chances are you’ll fall on some soft turf and get a little wet, fall here in Iceland and you’re likely to shatter a knee cap. These lava rocks can be treacherous.
Through the field a little ways and we begin to notice the presence of rock piles, or “priests” as they’re locally called, along the way. We have seen them now in many places throughout the peninsula this trip. I have not a clue what their purpose is other than obvious trail marking. Any Icelander who can comment on this, your input would be greatly appreciated. It’s amusing, as an atheist, how this trip has been all churches, “priests”, and “christian pillars”, but trust me, I’m not complaining.
Before we know it, the sun is starting to set and we are well over mile away from the hotel. I know that a great deal of the pictures posted are little more than landscapes draped in white, but you really must experience a sunset. The colors are unimaginable and a picture doesn’t begin to do them justice. The leprechauns appear to be in hiding since we haven’t seen one of the little imps or maybe they just come out after dark. Anyway, it’s time to boogey back because I really don’t want to be traversing these fields in the dark.
It’s difficult to grasp the vastness of Iceland unless you fit some point of reference in your pictures. If you look closely towards the center-bottom of this picture, you can the see the hotel and church in the distance. Sailor and I were so busy talking and hiking, we didn’t realize how far away from the hotel we actually had gone. Also, the second the sun is out sight, the winds pick up and the temperature plummets. After a quarter mile of careful and considerate walking, we started running, rocks be damned, back towards the hotel.
Dinner was had the hotel that evening, tended to by our wonderful server, Asgeir, who also served the large family party occupying the hotel with us. Iceland is a very family oriented place and it has not been unusual for us to see the children out at late hours dining with their parents. Apparently, the party is celebrating the 60th birthday of the family matriarch and the grandfather is more than happy to fly his infant granddaughter around the room to visit with the other guests. I have to inform our server Asgeir that I am allergic to most of the seafood on the menu for the evening and he readily informs the kitchen who make changes on my behalf. Aside from my previous culinary adventure of eating Puffin, I have now also eaten a whale. Okay, part of a whale. Whale carpaccio no less and while it’s a typical American guilt trip I start playing on myself for the pleasure, that whale was some good eatin’.
We end the evening with a nightcap at the bar, taking in a really impressive collection of liquors, and although really tempting, I do not dare ask what the 150 year old Grand Marnier would go for. We speak for a while with the grandfather of the other group and have a very interesting conversation about politics both Icelandic and American. Icelanders are keenly aware of our political process and are paying close attention to the presidential primaries.
Sadly, we have to call it a night. We have to get up early and drive two hours back to to Reykjavik in the morning and the weather reports have been inconsistent at best. Still, I can’t imagine a better night to end the trip. If you ever out in the area, stop in at the Hotel Budir and ask for Asgeir. He’ll take excellent care of you.
Last Chapter: The Final Roundup
Sailor Man and I have always opted for unusual locations at odd times of year for our brief respites and in doing so, have become quite the connoisseurs of guidebooks. We’ve tried The Lonely Planet, Frommers, Fodors and others. On this trip we had The Rough Guide Series with us and the best I can say about it is that it left us wanting.
This isn’t unusual in that there are certain realities one has to take into consideration when relying on a guidebook. The first is that the travel writers are speeding through the area and are prone to not remembering things accurately. Also, there’s the writer’s lack of basic local knowledge. Unfortunately, cultural differences also sometimes make their way into the book. The Rough Guide we had was written largely by Brits and we found the overall tone to be persnickety and a bit, dare I say, bitchy? Based on some descriptions of towns and sites in the book Sailor Man and I would have never investigated them for ourselves had we not either disregarded the guide or sought out other sources.
The last thing to keep in mind is that things change. Restaurants close, hotel management changes, stores move locations, hours differ seasonally, and money fluctuations abound. For instance, Sailor Man and I spent a month hiking the western coast of Ireland in 2004 and upon a recommendation in the Lonely Planet, we spent the most uncomfortable night in a hostel that had received rave reviews from the guide. Instead of spending the evening in a “warm and friendly” little abode, it was more akin to spending the evening at a friend’s unemployed, alcoholic stepfather’s home who takes in strange boarders and has a lights-out policy at 9pm.
Moral of the story: You just can’t always trust the book.
Mid-way across the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, we came across Berserkjahraun, a 4000+ year old lava field with a path cleared through it by two Beserkers in the late 900’s CE. It’s a weird and twisted tale that you can read more about in the Eyrbyggja Saga. I didn’t know this fact before this trip to Iceland, but there’s an intermingled folkloric history between Beserkers and Werewolves, and not that this influenced our decision, but given the snowy conditions and the late hour and the moon being just off-full, we thought it best to push on…
**as always, double-clicking the pictures enlarges them to a size more suitable for inspection…
Onto Grundarfjordur! I wasn’t expecting much visiting this town as the guidebook really didn’t make it seem all that exciting, but I fell in love with this spot on the planet. Do not make the mistake of ignoring this town. First, the scenery: how the heck do you beat that? Water views, surrounded by mountains and glaciers, aand a tidy little village nestled in the thick of it all. Despite being a good ways away from a big city and basically in the middle of nowhere, the townsfolk of 850 persons carry on the typical Iceland fashion sense in that everyone sports fantastic eyeglasses and even more stylish clothing despite the local lively hood being centered around fishing.
There was a film festival going on at the local high school so we failed to find a place at the local hostel. The only other hotel in town was the Hotel Framnes that the guidebook referred to only as “functional”, and very incorrectly I might add. We decided to check out the hotel anyway. It was a former fishing hostel which didn’t seem promising and the obvious major reconstruction work to the hotel’s exterior made it seem even more discouraging, but then you walk in the door and it’s simply another world. We were greeted by Shelagh, a friendly and gorgeous lady from South Africa who owns the hotel with her husband, Gisli, a former local fisherman and now chef. The interior has been completely renovated with wonderful wood floors, gorgeous wood trimmings, yummy leather furniture and cozy bedrooms. Considering what the guidebook led us to believe, we couldn’t had been more surprised. We gratefully secured a room for the night and headed out for a walk before sunset.
Since it was Saturday and off-season, the local heritage museum was closed, as was the local pool, and we had just missed the wine store. Still it’s a wonderful walk around town and it’s hard to get enough of the view of Kirkjufell “church mountain”, that dominates the scenery. Interesting houses line the streets, kids are sledding up and down the sidewalk, or funny enough, attempting to play basketball in the snow. And may I say that I for one am darn glad the tacky and lovable practice of Garage Door Art has crossed the Atlantic to Iceland proper? The stroll around this small town was really quite enjoyable. We happened upon a friendly gentleman who runs the heritage center. We also explored the ubiquitous white Lutheran Church with the red roof that every town in Iceland seems to be in possession of. I became particularly enamored of a rock with the face chiseled into it and had to convince Sailor Man just to take a picture.
It’s strange when you return from vacation and realize all the pictures you didn’t take. We have a new digital camera Sailor served in the capacity of official photographer for all our shenanigans, I have developed this obsessive tendency of pointing and demanding for snapshots to be taken. And of the weirdest crap as well. For example, I have no idea why it was so important to have a picture of a Michelin Man figure hanging on the side of the building, except for it being green, which is unusual, but really, what the hell was I thinking? But more importantly, why does Sailor Man cooperate so fully in this endeavor?
We stopped at the local market in town so Sailor Man could pick up some fish jerky. Yup, that’s right, fish that has been air dried by the fierce winds of Iceland that results in a horrifically stinky treat. Sailor loves this stuff. I’ve tried finding it for him back here in the states but the only thing that comes close is Salmon Chews that are made for dogs. That really ought to tell you everything you need to know about fish jerky. I’m all about “When in Rome” but damn, I cannot get passed the smell. Anyway, I went to pull out the credit card and discovered it wasn’t in my wallet. Sailor remembered me putting it in my pocket when we when checked into the hotel but it wasn’t there. So I send Sailor back to the hotel while I retrace our steps in town to see if I had dropped it.
I was up by the school at the scene where Sailor and I had brief but decisive Ultimate Fight Championship match which resulted in me hanging upside down in a fireman’s lift, thinking that would be the place most likely to find my card, when I notice two young girls following me. I cross a field, head over to the church, back down a street, and they’re still following me. I had a brief “Better Off Dead” moment thinking they would turn into the paper-boy stalker screaming for his $2 dollars, but one of them runs up to me and holds out my credit card. I thank her profusely and ask how she knew it was mine, but she doesn’t speak English. Her friend does however, and flippantly informs me of the unlikelihood of other Americans being in town right now and then runs off to play. Didn’t think we stood out that much.
I wouldn’t have given it another thought except the next morning, hours after we had checked out and were well outside of town, we were chased down by Gisli, owner (and fantastic chef I must say) of the hotel, to return my luggage that I accidentally left in his lobby. As vast as Iceland can feel with its stretches of land and mountain ranges, Iceland still feels small when it comes to interpersonal relations. That, and so considerate that someone would go out of their way to chase you down over forgotten luggage. This entire trip was made up of a series of such small niceties by the Icelanders that I need to make sure to emphasize it. I hate to say this, but I’ve been hard pressed in so many parts of the world to receive this same consideration. So thank you again, Gisli, and thanks, little girl, whoever you are.
So, Grundarfjordur, do not pass it by! We only spent a quiet evening there but it was highly enjoyable nonetheless and I can easily see coming back sometime in the summer and really seeing this town come to life.
Next Chapter: The Western Shore and a romantic and intimate dinner for 16.
If you insist on going to Iceland in the middle of winter, and if you insist upon renting a car, it helps to be aware of local weather and road conditions at all times. I came across this absolutely brilliant and indispensable website that provided regularly updated road conditions. Every hotel we stayed in had some sort of Internet access, so we were able to check it before heading out the next day.
Now this begs to question: Why does the government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania suck? Okay, let me be more specific: how is it that a state, like Pennsylvania, the same size as Iceland, can not put its tax dollars towards something useful, like say, reporting road conditions on the internet and staying the hell out of the sale of alcohol? Okay, I know, another topic for another time.
So we headed out of Reykholt the next morning. It was slightly overcast at the time which was a shame as the Eriksjokull glacier is supposed to be visible from the hotel on clear days. Also, further east of Reykholt are the waterfalls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss, also known as the “Lava Falls” and “Children’s Falls”. I desperately wanted to see them as I love waterfalls in the winter, but based on the road conditions we saw reported, we regrettably didn’t make it out to them since we would be zig-zagging our way north and would wanted to make sure we had enough time to accomplish the day’s plan.
Here is where I’m going to insert another valuable traveling trip when exploring Iceland in the winter: those red lines on maps marking main roads? Stay on them. I know those and gray and black lines of secondary roads may seem dashing and adventurous, but trust me, they’re bad boyfriends in the making. While you’ll enjoy the thrill of danger, they will put you through hell, steal your gas money, and you’ll never know where you stand with them. Trust me on this, it’s simply best not to get involved.
The new game plan was to head west back towards to the coast and then north to visit Eriksstadir, the turf house thought to be home of Erik the Red, and then further north to the Laxardalur Valley. After heading west to catch the soon to be infamous Highway 60, we had the pleasant surprise of coming across the town of Bifrost. Sadly, it was not the rainbow bridge that connects Midgard to Asgard and hence, no mingling with the Old Gods for us.
*as always, double cliking the pictures will enlarge them.
To go north at this point, you have traverse Highway 60, which in the summer, I am sure is spectacularly beautiful, much like the Gap of Dunloe in Ireland, but in the winter, with slightly icy road conditions, it exists for no other reason than to scare the ever livin’ crap out of unsuspecting travelers. This does not mean I regret our choice of rental car. To the contrary, our Ford Focus served extremely well. It’s just that the velocity with which the arctic winds tear through the country, they are enough to lift any car like a paper-thin kite and send you hurtling to your death around bends of the road that lack a proper guard rail. And there are many such roads. This is what I would call a potential opportunity for a White Death. White people, in a white car, landing in a ravine, covered in snow, lying undetected until the spring thaw. The only thing I wished for in this case was the car at least be a color that screams “Hey! Idiot tourists trapped down here in the ravine!”
Highway 60 dead ends into Hvammsfjordur and from there we ping-pong back east, again, down into the valley of Haukadalur towards the historical home site of Erik the Red, you know, the guy largely regarded for the founding of Greenland. The ruins of Eiriksstadir was discovered in 1997 and a reconstruction of the turf house is built in front of the ruins. Obviously, it is not open during the winter months. I was anxious to see it, since being Irish, and given Ireland’s and Iceland’s intermingled history, I was keen to see the differences and similarities between their turf-home building practices.
You have to drive deep into the valley to get to the site and the waterway accompanies you through most of it, but once the water ends, look to your left and there you go. I can be as dorky and sentimental as the next person, so I have to admit it is was no small thrill to see this house. If you are not up on your history, Erik the Red was the father of Leif Eirikson, otherwise known as the real first European to set foot in North America nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus (who visited Iceland by the way, where do you think he got the idea from?).
I understand that during the summer months, there are interpreters in traditional clothing, festivals, and the like, but in the winter, you have little more than an interpretive board written in a number of different languages and a rather Puckish statue of Leif pointedly ignoring you. I was surprised by the statue in that any representation of Vikings that we had seen to date were very He-Man looking and this statue is so effeminate. This seemed oddly out of character of man who braved the North Atlantic and linked Europe to the North American continent. I might have been a little low in the blood sugar at this point, but I half expected this statue to leap to the ground and start performing show tunes.
Out of the valley, back towards the coast, north a little ways, swing another right and we head into the Laxardarlur Valley. Not much to look at here in the winter, but we drove through none the less as it is a site of the Laxdaela Saga, the prime story being a tragic love triangle between the beautiful Gudrun and two brothers , Bolli and Kjartan. It is also the one saga, I believe, that is suspected of being written by woman. Any sites worth seeing were buried under the snow, so we took a leisurely drive since the sky had cleared and the sun was shining.
As we were exiting the valley, we came upon a heard of Icelandic horses grazing in the pasture. We pulled over to view what was such a post-card picture moment. Horses in the pasture, open waters of the fjord in the background, and the Snaefellsnes mountain range looming in the horizon. As I’ve written before, the Icelandic horse has not changed in over 1200 years. Quite literally, they are the exact same horse the Vikings brought to Iceland and have not been bred with any other strain of horse. They are sturdy little guys with a remarkably smooth gait and are darn handsome to boot. Sailor Man got out of the car to take a picture and immediately all the horses in the pasture came out to greet him. They ran at the sight of me, I think the red hair spooks them.
During the summer months, you can find horse back riding establishments all throughout the country. Sailor Man and I have decided that our next trip to Iceland is going to be sometime during the summer (Shock! Recoil! Disbelief!) when we can take advantage of a trek through the heart of Iceland via horseback.
It was at this point that we decided to head into the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. Now since Iceland is volcanically formed and glacially carved, there are few roads that will take you through a mountain range. What you get instead, are winding roads that go deep into the fjords and right back out again. You swing around the peak and right back into another fjord. It’s a little disconcerting at first because the mountains are right on top of you on one side of the road, but being the passenger, I was afforded the luxury of taking in the scenery across the water and hence, stayed off a too-close feeling of claustrophobia.
I know that there’s something in nature that’s not supposed to love a wall, but I’m Irish and I brake for rock walls. All of them. Given the harshness of the climate, you would think that there would be more rock structures in Iceland, but lava rock doesn’t make for the best stacking material and other types of rock suitable for the job seem to be in short supply. Still, a well made wall lining a road side park in the heart of a fjord (and another saga site) is enough for geeks like Sailor Man and I pull over, jump out with camera in hand, and go ooooo and ahhh.
We’re traveling the north road of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and though the sun is still out, we are in the shadows of the mountains which makes for a moody drive. We’re hoping to drive out a neck of land to the town of Stykkisholmur, but we opted to drive westward as the only reason to stop would have been to see sites that were currently inaccessible due to winter road conditions.
It’s really the only frustrating thing about visiting Iceland in the winter, the lack of accessibility to places you want to go. But the trade off is that we drove for hours without passing another vehicle on the road, we could sit in absolute silence with only the noise of the car to intrude, and we could get out of the car at any time and scream “Immigrant Song” at the tops of our lungs in relative peace. Which we did. A lot. For a brief period of time, Sailor Man and I had Iceland all to ourselves.
Next Chapter: Who says you can get lost in Iceland?
Since we were only spending one day in Reykjavik, and since jet lag makes a hotel more utilitarian than luxury, we opted to stay at the Reykjavik City Hostel. It’s a little outside of town (about 30 minutes walking), but the bus comes by every 10 minutes, and as previously mentioned, a really wonderful city swimming pool is right next-door.
Let me say that the Reykjavik Hostel is simply one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. It’s a little out of the way as far as the local action goes, but it’s well run, immaculate, has great facilities, and affordable.
So let’s just get this all out right now: Iceland is a very expensive country. Off season, in the winter, in the middle of nowhere-it’s still really expensive. When you enter the country, just be prepared to hand over not only your passport, but the number of your bank account. Don’t worry, you receive very nice things and services for your cash, but just be prepared is all I’m saying.
We awoke the next day to what would mark our daily breakfast routine for the rest of the trip. In an American hotel, you get what is called a “Continental Breakfast” which usually amounts to stale, sticky, too-sweet pastries, bad coffee, questionable fruit and juice. The complimentary spread at the hostel was a sight to behold: 4 varieties of local breads, pots of jam and preserves, muesli and other types of cereals, hard-boiled eggs, varieties of cold cuts of meat, pickled herring, creamed herring, and some other fish treatment I am at a lost to describe. The coffee comes out a vended type machine, the likes of which you will see all over the country in many makes and models, and if you prefer cream with your cup of joe, you better get used to milk. But if there is one thing you simply must experience in the breakfast routine, it is this: the butter. It’s incredible. It’s like crack, or what I assume crack would be like with its purported addictive properties. I couldn’t get enough of it the entire trip. So aside from the a well-ordered city, great museums, and insanely good butter, you must also give due to the Icelanders for their breakfast spread. Seriously good stuff.
We rented a car for our western adventure and while Iceland seems to be land of the Toyota Yaris, which we actually tried to rent since we own one, we instead received a manual Ford Focus sedan with a serious set of snow tires. This means Sailor Man drives the entire trip because I suck at driving a stick.
We headed north out of Reykjavik, around Mt. Esja and on to a town called Borganes. The weather wasn’t looking promising so we got under way as soon as a possible. A fairly uneventful car ride, notable only for the terrifically cool 6 kilometer long tunnel we drove through under a fjord, and the fact the road we were driving on is considered the most dangerous road in Iceland. This was not a fact known to me before we commenced upon it. We encountered driving winds and white out conditions. So white, in fact, that we didn’t know there was the damn ocean not a hundred yards away until our return trip a few days later.
We were planning on stopping in Borganes, an hour north of Reykjavik that has an excellent Settlement Center and a number of sites relating to “Egil’s Saga”. There’s not much to Borganes except some service stations, hotels, and nondescript buildings of unknown purpose. But the town itself extends out on a neck land into the fjord and is in possession of some dramatic and gorgeous views. The highest point in town has a another wonderful and random public art installation of what we thought was probably a dragon overlooking the fjord and mountains across the water.
**note: double-clicking the pictures will expand them.
The Center also serves as a local cornucopia of tourist information and a gift shop. You have the option of three activities: the settlement exhibit, an artistic presentation of Egil’s Saga, or a theatrical interpretation of some matter on the upper most floor. We opted for the settlement exhibit and Egil’s Saga. We were issued an iPod shuffle set to English and headphones for guiding us through. It’s a little dry but contains some very interesting information about Iceland nonetheless. The second exhibit down in the basement is hands down one of the coolest darn things I’ve ever experienced. Sadly, no photography was allowed in the exhibit. You are guided through about 30 individual stations that retell the story of Egil and his family who actually lived in Borganes during the settlement period. Each station was designed and crafted by an Icelandic artist and I was simply enthralled. Aside from the story of Egil which is fascinating for its celebration of an ugly, foul-tempered, violent man prone to feats of the supernatural who happens to also be charming in his gift for the gab. Seriously, Egil needed a time out. A lot of them. But if you read the saga, Egil also composes some of the most beautiful poetry, particularly that poem he wrote regarding the loss of his two young sons. Overall, the exhibit is excellent, the individual pieces designed for the visual aspect of the exhibit are incredible. Go. Go. Go. Go…that is, if you happen to be in the area.
What makes Egil’s Saga come to life so fully is the town of Borganes itself. You walk out and behind the Center and right there is where Egil’s Irish nanny, Bracht, was murdered in the fjord by Egil’s father, and further down the road is the cairn marking the tomb of Egil’s two sons, and over there is the tomb of Skalla-Grimur, Egil’s mean old man. The history is everywhere and pretty much in your face. I find it admirable and with great gratitude that the Icelander’s had the Dog-good sense not to mow their history down, pave it over, and build Disneyland on top of it. In such a small and isolated town, it’s easy to become very close to Egil’s story. Overall though, it’s hard to know how to define the sagas. Are they folk-tales? Myths? Histories? While they contain obvious acts of the fantastical, the sagas also contain a very real history of very real people.
We finished with the exhibits, had a great lunch at the center and then started out of town. Just before you encounter the main entrance road into Borganes, there stands a small park with dwarf birches and more cairns marking points of saga interest. I made Sailor Man pull over so we could walk through park as it had just snowed and we would be leaving the only footprints as we had the park to ourselves.
A note about trees: you will not see many of them during your trip through Iceland. Iceland was completely deforested during the settlement period and the Vikings had no idea the environmental havoc they were creating. 1200 years later, and Iceland still only has 1% of tree cover (imagine this, a land mass the size of Pennsylvania with only 1% of that land having trees? damn.) and deals with the very serious environmental issue of soil erosion due to the lack of vegetation. Iceland on average plants 14 trees per person annually throughout the country, but trees grow more slowly than they do in the States and the success rate is small. So when you see a grove of trees there, do root them on, I’m sure they appreciate the encouragement.
Despite the weather not being particularly favorable, we headed an hour east from Borganes toward the village of Reykholt “smokey woods”. Reyholt is home to Snorrastofa, a center devoted to the medieval studies of Iceland and the history of Snorri Sturlson. Snorri is a truly a remarkable character in Icelandic history. A poet, a statesman, and reknowned historian, Snorri is credited compiling and writing down many of Iceland’s sagas which until such time had been passed down orally generation to generation. Poor Snorri, however, fell out of favor with the King of Norway and was assasinated in his fortress at Reykholt.
A magnificent church and center stands where Snorri’s fortress once stood. The church is located in one wing, the library is located in the opposing wing, and the exhibit for Snorri and medieval Iceland lives in the basement. We arrived one hour prior to closing in the middle of a snow storm and you can not imagine the surprise of the staff to see a young couple specifically arrive at Reykholt on a Friday afternoon, in the middle of winter, in the middle of a snow storm and American to boot. While roaming the exhibit in the basement, the priest of the Church happened upon us and we struck up a conversation.
Geir (forgive me, I didn’t get your last name and I hope I am spelling your first name correctly) is simply a lovely human being who was kind enough to take us on a tour of the entire facility: exhibit, church, and library. Geir is knowledgeable of all things Snorri. Additionally, he is wealth of information regarding medieval Iceland and told us stories and history you’d be hard-pressed to find on the walls of the exhibit, his knowledge is that deep. Plus, he is in possession of an elegant little snuffbox, the likes I haven’t seen since I was a little girl, which reminded instantly of one my mother’s cousins who used to tell my sibs and I stories of the Old Sod. I became oddly fixated on the snuffbox.
New fact I’ve learned about Icelanders: they can be as good at holding a grudge as the Irish. I like this immensely. Wrongs committed against ancestors nearly a millennia before is reason enough not to wish certain neighbors a good day should these deeds come up in polite conversation. I think this has something to do with how far Icelanders can trace back to their ancestors. One Icelander informed us he was 27 generations removed from one of Snorri Sturluson’s wives. And this was would be going back to the the 1200’s. I’m hard pressed to go back 400 years on just the maternal side of my family.
I gather Geir likes to talk and is deeply passionate about the center and his small parish, but that is okay, because Sailor Man and I like to listen. The tour of the church was particularly impressive as it is shamefully not mentioned in any tour book we have read and should be in its own right. There are four stain glass windows in each of the four walls and the artist’s layering of heathen Norse culture, early Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Icelandic culture is an eloquent piece of work. The fact that these magnificent windows were created by a painter and first time stain glass artist says a lot unto itself. The stain glass windows, which I am sorry to say were not able to be photographed due to time of day and the light.
But the entire center sums up another point I truly respect about a historic culture such as Iceland. They do not disregard their Viking past, just as they do not disregard their heathen or Catholic past, they remember all and incorporate all with great respect and effortlessness. And Geir, a priest no less, has an astounding intellect I could probe all day and in fact we almost did. 500 kronur was a small price for such a wonderful and enlightening afternoon.
We parted with Geir and went in search of Snorri’s pool. The only remaining evidence of Snorri’s fortress 800+ years ago, is the tunnel from which he tried to escape his assassins and the geothermal pool he used to entertain. So past the school and down the hill and there you are. A door that leads to a tunnel that now leads nowhere, and the stone lined pool that appear terribly welcoming except for the fact that you know a former inhabitant was murdered just beyond the door.
As we stayed well beyond any reasonable time to set off and travel and further, we opted to stay the night in Reykholt. The Foss Hotel is “themed” hotel which by the mere sound of it should be cheesey as all get out and oddly, is not. The hotel is former boarding school and is a maze unto itself which is also a part of its charm. There’s a spa in the hotel and an emphasis on meditation with any number of rooms set aside for the purpose of reading, talking, chilling out, and or gazing into a fire. All with yummy chocolate colored leather furniture and heavy wood accouterments.
So here’s the fun part: each hallway in the hotel as “theme”. One hallway is dedicated to Old Norse Gods and Goddesses, another is dedicated to the intricate explanations of Old Norse planes of existence, another hallway is contains framed copies of viking comic books (dig it, it was cool) and the another to stamps featuring Old Norse figures. You get the idea. There was only two other rooms in the entire hotel booked for the evening and pretty much all of us spent the time wandering each of the halls examining the hangings.
Okay, odd fact confession: if you visit Iceland as a couple, be prepared that you will be entering Ricky & Lucy land. Ward & June’s abode. Mike and Carol’s tavern. By this, I mean separate, twin beds. No joke. We requested a “double” everywhere we went and that still meant twins beds. Sometimes pushed together, sometimes not. Any Icelander who comes across this, do please explain. I am most confused.
So we ended our night in Reykholt. The weather cleared, and the moon, just off full, came out around midnight. Sailor Man went out onto the grounds where the old church at Reykholt still stands and is now preserved. The graveyard was alight with crosses and and other luminous ornaments on the graves. It was explained to us later in the trip that it is a way of honoring and remembering the dead, that hey, winter is long and dark, have a little light…
Next Chapter: Valley of the Lax(Dolls)
When the first settler arrived in Iceland, his decision to set up shop in Reykjavik was based on the random tossing of logs from his boat and the even more random act of letting wherever these logs washed up on shore be the pace to hang his Viking hat.
Either it was a very good throw or some very smart logs because as the fates would have it, the gentleman found Reykjavik. Depending on which history you believe, the name hails from this said same sir either from his witnessing volcanic smoke from Mt. Hekla in the distance or the steam rising from the numerous geothermal hot spots in the area, hence the name of Europe’s most northern capital, Reykjavik: “smokey bay”.
In the grand manor of most major airports, to say you fly into Reykjavik is really to say you are flying in Keflavik about 40 minutes southwest conveniently located in the middle of a lava field. This means of course, should your airplane crash; there will be precious little for you bounce off of.
Personally, I dig this airport. Keflavik follows in the typical tradition of Scandinavian design. Polished metals, pale wood floors, and black tiles abound. Everything is tidy, everything is clean, the bathrooms are immaculate, and everything has its order. About the only complain I could utter would be the odd practice of having to go through airport security after getting off the plane. Seriously, shoes off, belts off, coat through the x-ray machine. I don’t get it. Particularly when nearly everything else in Iceland makes such damn smart sense. Maybe this is the exception to prove the rule.
So you do your security, do your customs check, and before you can leave the airport, you are cleverly guided through the duty free shop. Brazen, I know, but this is a good thing and here’s why: booze. Booze in Iceland is horrifically expensive, along with everything else, but booze? Damn. Do yourself a favor and pick up a few bottles of wine, a tankard of whiskey, and a pint or two of Brenevin because you will be mortgaging your fingers and toes for the stuff out in town. I believe Sailor Man nearly choked last year when we paid $15 for a beer. One beer. A good beer, but not that good.
And while on the topic of money, skip the cash exchange. The fees are horrendous. Iceland is largely a cash free country anyway and you can use a credit card everywhere and for everything. I researched my credit card exchange policies and just brought the card with the lowest transaction fee and who has the best negotiated exchange policy. Should you actually need cash for something like the bus, ATMs abound so just withdrawal your cash there and for as much as you need. Trust me on the credit car thing though, we saved a lot of money of exchange fees this past trip.
Onward through the airport and you will dead end at the Flybus station. If you do an Iceland Air package, they typically include pick-up and drop-off to your hotel. Some hotels will also have this complimentary service. As Sailor Man and I were winging it, we had to pay, but no matter, at 7am in the morning, I’m willing to let someone else do the heavy lifting. Whatever your plan, just get on the bus, tell the driver where you need to go, grab a cup of Kaffe, relax and enjoy the 40-minute ride through the lava fields. It’s fascinating to say the least.
The first thing you will notice about Reykjavik (or maybe you won’t, maybe it’s just me) is the utter lack of power lines. Anywhere. They’re underground. And traffic lights? On the side and middle of the road where they should be. Of course, what I truly adore, which is weird because I’m American and thus should be inherently confounded by these things is the Roundabout. There is simply nothing more civilized on this planet than the Roundabout. And anyone who brings up National Lampoon’s European Vacation can kiss my ass! I love Roundabouts and I’ve been swearing at traffic lights ever since our return.
The other thing about Reykjavik, there aren’t a lot of tall buildings. Some apartment complexes here and there but really, everything is low to the ground. One would assume this is because the area is volcanically active and prone to earthquakes, but I like it in that you have a good sense of perspective about the town. Rolling streets with views to all sides. Another blessing to the low building structures is that all throughout town everyone has incredible views of Mt. Esja to the north on the other side of the bay.
**apparently double-clicking the picture will enlarge them, at least it does on my computer.
I wasn’t prepared last time for the housing and building types in Reykjavik. I don’t know what I was expecting exactly, but I certainly wasn’t expecting what we saw. Charming old buildings, intermixed with modern, and fantastic houses that are sided and roofed in galvanized corrugated steel painted the most beautiful colors. I know that the steel (maybe aluminum?) part sounds rather odd, but trust me, it’s simply amazing. It gives the houses such interesting texture and depth. Some houses are well appointed with traditional scrolling and other finery.
You walk around just admiring the charm and then turn a corner onto a street with what I can only describe as Soviet-style apartment housing. Mostly cement or mortar, pale, so many new buildings that have sprung up since last year are adding dashes of color. And again, everything is clean, clean, clean, but with the lack of trees and other shrubbery (more about that later), you feel for moment like you just lost Reykjavik, like losing your brother at the shopping mall, only you haven’t. The overwhelming sense of orderliness is astounding and inherently Icelandic. I wonder if Icelanders notice this themselves? I have to say, returning to Erie from Iceland makes everything feel like a whirling mass of entropy.
The main structure that dominates Reykjavik, however, is the Hallgrimskirkja, a Lutheran church built on one of the highest points in town and fronted by a majestic statue of Leif Erickson which was a gift to Iceland by the United States in 1930 marking the 1000th Anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament. This is not a misprint. Iceland has one of the oldest parliamentary systems in the world. The construction for this church began in 1945 and was not completed until 1986. You can go to the top of the church tower and experience one of the best views of Reykjavik. The inside is equally impressive with astounding accoustics and a pipe organ larger than your living room.
This is very obviously the church of a reformed Christian faith as no Catholic Church I know of would ever consent to such fabulously luscious and comfortable seats as are installed in this structure. It’s light, it’s airy, and quite simply, is one of the most joyous works of architecture I have ever seen. Truly, the serenity of the space will bowl you over. The church is also used for concerts of all nature and is a favorite recording venue due to the pipe organ. Unfortunately, Sailor man and I missed our one chance to hear a concert while in town and when we return to Iceland in the future, we definitely plan on making that a priority.
We strolled around town, a little shell shocked from sleeplessness, drinking coffee-a lot of coffee-and just taking in the sights. One thing that eventually comes to you if you walk around long enough is that Reykjavik has a great deal of public art. Unfortunately, a lot of it does not have any signage and what signage it has is in Icelandic. No matter. It’s beautiful and well placed and I like a city where you can turn a corner and not know what you’re going to run into. Of course, some of what you can run into is a bit disconcerting.
Sailor Man and I ran into this random piece last year and it has made regular appearances in my nightmares ever since. I’m not exactly sure why as I really like this statue and constantly wonder what the hell the story is behind it (no sign). For a country of only 313,000 people, Iceland has a great deal of museums and particularly for art in Reykjavik. Let me tell you, this is a class of people who really know how to do a museum and do them well. 2 visits to this city and Sailor man and I have only managed to hit half of them. Mostly because they do an excellent job of inspiring you to linger and take your time.
Alongside the Hellgrimskirkja church, the other main tourist attraction in Reykjavik is the Sun Voyager. A modern art sculpture made in 1971 that occupies prime waterfront property overlooking the bay. We must have passed this sculpture a dozen times in our visits to the city and at any time of day, you can expect someone to be the taking a picture. Can hardly blame them it’s a hell of a view.
Even though we’d basically pulled an all-nighter through traveling, Sailor Man and I decided not to nap upon arrival. I knew if we did, we would have zonked out for the whole day, so we opted to hike into town and see where the day took us.
Facts to know: most Icelanders speak English and Icelanders love their coffee. Tea not so much, but they are married to their coffee and anything else, like say a real human spouse, is really just a second husband or wife. You can’t turn left in Reykjavik without running into a coffee shop. But that’s okay as the coffee is very dark, very strong, and exactly how I can not find it in America. Hence, I made mad passionate love to my first spouse, the local coffee, all throughout the trip. Right in front of Sailor Man. I know. I’m bad. But I went through horrible caffeine withdrawal upon return, so I guess we’re even.
Our first order of business was to visit an exhibit we tried to see last time but was closed. The Settlement Exhibit or as it is really called: “871 ± 2”, are the remains of a longhouse constructed during the Settlement Period sometime in the 800’s. What’s s extraordinary about it is that is right smack-dab in the middle of town and the extraordinary lengths that were gone to not only to preserve it, but to exhibit it as well. The longhouse was found during the expansion of a downtown hotel. Instead of just uprooting the ruins and taking them elsewhere, the hotel was raised and the exhibit is in the basement.
What’s also really interesting is that technology had to be invented to preserve the remains. The longhouse would have been made of turf and turf is a living organism that eventually dies. So a modified alcohol solution that is used to preserve stone structures is also being used to preserve the remains of the house. It makes for a slightly smelly exhibit, but in a good favorite-drunk-aunt kinda way. The walls surrounding the exhibit try to represent what Reykjavik would have looked like during this period. The exhibit is simple, interesting and very well done, just like Icelanders know to do. I apologize if the picture just looks like a pile of stones, but it is hard to get perspective without hanging from the rafters which I’m sure the museum would not appreciate. But you’ll go see it for yourself and know what I am talking about.
We left the museum and immediately sought out an Icelandic delicacy: a hot dog. I have no idea why, but Icelanders (and Swedes apparently) love their hot dogs. And while we failed to get a picture of it, next to the arch that is in a picture above, has got to be the best designed hot dog stand, architecturally speaking. I know we in Erie are partial to our Smiths hot dogs, but sorry, these are better, and so is their mustard. I don’t think we visited a single town that did not have ready access to these dogs.
We hiked back to the hostel and decided to indulge in the Icelandic national pastime: hot-tubbing. Reykjavik has at least 7 or 8 (someone correct me if I am wrong) pool facilities that are heated with their lovely treasure of geothermal water. For convenience sake, we went to the Laugardarlur pool next to the hostel. It’s a massive facility with both indoor and outdoor pool, kiddie pool, steam bath, and numerous “hot pots” which are tubs of varying degrees. All pool facilities are very particularl about cleanliness, no shoes in locker rooms, everyone must shower thoroughly before entering the pool (and the locker room wardens are not shy about reminding or instructing you about this).
While there are the unfortunate occasions of the ill-advised speedo (they are a privilege not a right), it’s an excellent opportunity to go and mingle with the natives. Just make sure you do not pick the spot next to the teenage couple making out or the youngsters learning to use water wings. The recommended “system” for the hot pots is to start with the least warm pot and work your way up to the warmest pot (they vary from 36-42 degree Celsius). Follow with a steam bath, a quick swim and your health with be golden. I had always heard that Icelanders were reserved and not very talkative to strangers, but I really have not found that to be the case. The pools are an excellent way to socialize and no, not in a creepy, cheesy, 70’s, “schvitzing” kind of way either. Just go, you’ll love it, trust me.
Given Iceland’s location on the planet, twilight is unusually long. It was fairly light out by 7 am although the sun did not rise until 9am. Likewise, the sun set at 6pm but twilight lasted almost until 8pm which is way better than we get here in Erie this time of year. The dinner hour in Iceland is much like that in most of Europe, it starts late in the evening (or late for an American) around 8 or 9 pm and dinner out is a leisurely event. Also, Iceland waiters and waitresses are professionally trained for fine dining. To become a fine dining server, your schooling lasts for 3 years and believe me, it shows. The two evenings we partook of fine dining were not only some of the best food we’ve ever experienced, but the service was impeccable.
That first night we ate at Laekjarbrekka in the main shopping district. It’s situated in a traditional style house and the interior is warm and lush, cozy and intimate. They serve an excellent traditional European style course meal and I recommend the endangered smoked Puffin and mountain lamb. I don’t know the full particulars about the issue, but this is a small island nation with limited internal food resources that has been eating these birds for over a thousand years. Who am I to judge?
Sailor Man and I managed to stuff ourselves silly and as dog-tired as we were, we hiked half-way back to the hostel and took the bus the rest of the way. I’m happy to say I slept like the dead that night. Something I don’t do well in foreign environments. But while it was long, it was a very good first day and the next morning we were leaving for our western adventure.
Next Chapter: Egil’s Saga and Geir the Loquacious
Wow, been back for two days, trying to unpack, sort mail, collating pictures, making peace with the puppy dog who’s pissed that we left her behind, again, all while still waking up at 3am every night which is about 8am Iceland time.
So how was the trip? Well, I’m gonna tell you. The next week is going to be All Iceland! All the Time! This ought to cover the multitude of emails asking for all the gory, dirty details.
Let’s get to it:
A little over a year ago, Sailor Man woke me up in the middle of the night with the question: Wanna got to Iceland? I replied I did and we went back to sleep. Iceland comes to you that way, it’s out there, it’s interesting, it always seem like such a cool place to visit, but you don’t actively plan it until you just, you know, do.
And there’s tons of information out there: The Lonely Planet and the Rough Guide travel books, Iceland Air (the national airline) has an amazing website with packages and links to all sorts of information, and if you are into a certain kind of trip, there’s a lot of specialized resources out there as well.
Last time we opted for the Iceland Air packages mostly because in the winter they are cheap, they are meticulously planned, and they basically take all the thinking out of the trip if that’s what you want. Last time, we visited a national park (which was great because we were the only two on the trip and had the place to ourselves), we went horseback riding (which sucks if you have a stress fracture in your lower lumbar, which I did), and of course, The Blue Lagoon thermal spa (which rocks if you have a stress fracture in your lower lumbar), and all the museums one can fit on your plate.
That kind of trip was nice, don’t get me wrong, but upon arrival and two minutes outside of the airport we were already planning our next trip . Hence, the sequel, this trip, The Re-visitation if you will.
Since deciding to return to Iceland six weeks ago, Sailor Man and I performed a tremendous amount of research. As I have written before, Sailor Man has extensively read the Icelandic Sagas, which are are medieval literature of the Icelandic people’s settlement and early history on the island. They were passed down orally from the 9th century, written down in the 13th century after a written language form was adopted, and while not exactly accurate due to their supernatural nature, they do reflect real people, real events, in real places throughout the island. Sailor Man had it in his mind to to visit the west of Iceland were we could see both another national park and numerous saga sites as well. So we planned our trip around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, northwest of Reykjavik, the country’s capital.
Practical considerations: it’s Iceland in the winter. While our visit in January of 2007 was marked with temperatures from 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit (yeah, I know, Iceland, who knew?), you can’t count on that kind of weather all the time, this means a lot of layers, and thermal clothing. Also, Icelanders are a damn stylish people, so if you are going to be out and about in civilized society, it’s best to bring some nice clothes. Seriously, it’s February, 20 degrees outside, and Icelandic women of all ages are sporting miniskirts, tights, and boots, and looking faaaaaabulous. The color black seems to be de riguer for both men and women, and the gents certainly do enjoy their well-cut suits and tweed both in the city and out in the middle of nowhere, thus proving you don’t have to dress like a shlump to survive the climate.
A word for the ladies: let’s talk some hair. While Iceland has some of purest water in the world, it does have a high mineral content, so don’t count on your hair behaving as it normally does. Your hair will go native on you and you must be prepared. Pack all your usual instruments of destruction with the appropriate voltage adapter and converter. And even with such electrical adaptation, count on your hairdryer complaining loudly and your flat iron going on strike. Luckily, I solved the problem by using hotel hairdryers when possible and buying a cheap flat iron in country. I swear to Dog, if people on this planet are serious about world peace, they should start on the issue by getting every country on the same voltage.
As Sailor man and I currently reside in the backwater known as Erie, Pennsylvania, getting a direct flight is simply not possible. Last time drove to Buffalo, flew to Boston and then flew to Iceland, however, this required two separate airlines which is not advisable due to Boston Logan Airport being hell on earth which could mean delays and you being SOL in Bean Town. We opted for the same route through US Air which meant at least our luggage went all the way through even though we ourselves would be doing multiple visits to security.
Our flight to Iceland left at 8pm. This is the usual flight time per Iceland Air and it means you will be arriving at 6am local time. Most hotels will take you in that early, but I do advise you get some sleep on the plane. However, the night we flew out was the night of the full lunar eclipse. As we were on the right side of the plane, I witnessed my first-ever eclipse. Sailor Man and I took turns contorting ourselves into positions suitable to look out and up through the plane windows to witness the event. And though I had the worst case of whip-lash for my efforts during the rest of the trip, I can not complain.
Arriving in Iceland during a lunar eclipse had to be auspicious for all sorts of ridiculous shenanigans to be had. And it was.
Next Chapter: An American Hick in Reykjavik