Fjording and Fooding

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I posted my last update rather hastily, and wanted to talk a little bit about some of the things before heading into today’s excursion into fjords.

Our first big stop past the fairy rocks yesterday was at a place called Thingvellir. It’s a vast vale where the Icelandic people would come together once a year to sort out their governmental issues; the word literally means “assembly fields”. I thought it was kind of strange that it was many kilometers inland and away from Reykjavik, but the reason is that it’s more centrally located, and people would travel for long periods of time on horse prior to the modern era.

It’s tremendous imagining what life must have been like when the country got together once a year to see what happened elsewhere, introduce brides and grooms to each other and generally share news, and then decide what they might change in the coming year. Of course, Reykjavik is now the central place of government since it takes hours instead of days to cross the island, and Thingvellir is but a destination.

The falls at Gullfoss are an amazing site to behold as they slowly unfold in front of you. It becomes more mind-boggling as soon as you realize you can walk around on them—you get the sense that the Icelanders have weeded out their idiots over the last thousand years by virtue of letting nature take care of them.

Today we decided to go fjording in the north, and all of us had the idea that it would be a destination, rather than a process. Fjords, however, have other ideas. We set out from the city on route 1, happy and fed, enjoying the kilometers zipping by on the paved road. I was the lead car today, with Tia acting as my GPS. We made a brief detour to get gas, and I had another experience with the natives assuming I belonged to them. After I filled up, an old man came over to the car and started babbling and pointing at the gas tank, so I said “pardon me?” and he continued to point and babble in Icelandic. I left him there, not knowing if he was a mental patient or just trying to be helpful, assuming that one of my car mates would sort it out.

Inside the station, I went to pay for the gas and the tall cashier looked me over and babbled my total in Icelandic. I started speaking English, so he switched into some sort of Scandinavian language. I persisted in English, and this is the following conversation:

Cashier: Are you Scandinavian?
Me, mirthfully: No, no.
Cashier: Are you sure?
Me, slightly incredulous: Yes. I’m from Michigan in the US.
Cashier: Oh really?? I met someone from New York earlier!
Me: Why do you think I’m Scandinavian?
Cashier: (points at my hair, waves his hand around)
Me: Ohhh.
Cashier: But I must say, you don’t look like you are from New York! You look completely different!
Me, not sure what to think: No, no probably not.
Cashier: Have a great trip!
Me: Takk fyrir.

I returned to the car to find the old interloper had shown Tia how to shut the gas cap and then wandered off. We jumped back in the car and were on our way. We soon hit a fork in the road: we could take route 1, or route 1. Our map was in the back seat being the subject of trivia, so we made a random decision and pressed forward, and suddenly found ourselves rapidly descending to the center of the earth via the Hvalffjordur tunnel. While it wasn’t particularly scenic, it was, like much of Iceland, very raw, warm and unnerving. We popped out and had to pay 1000 kronur for the experience, and found we’d cut an hour off our travel time up north.

We pressed on, with a goal to be at a small city called Stykkishólmur for lunch, and our map indicated we’d get onto route 54, and then 55 to cut across to Stykki. Shortly after turning onto 55, we pulled off onto the side of the road to debate whether or not to continue after finding it was a compressed dirt road. It also provided a couple of us for a bathroom break, so I promptly found a drainage ditch and then fell into it. Again, combat boots were very handy, as was the car heater for drying everything off.

Driving on route 55 was akin to what it might be like to drive on the moon shortly after they start terraforming it. The landscape is unbelievable, primitive and you are the only souls for miles. We didn’t see a single car while crossing the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which eventually became a bit fatiguing due to having to keep your eyes peeled for anything that might jeopardize the lonely trip across.

It was made a little less fun because it added an hour and a half to our commute, and we arrived at Stykki way past when lunch had been served. However, I would still recommend taking the journey, especially if you have a small group of people. We stopped once on the long drive, and the photos and views were unbelievable, as they are the entire drive. This was about the point when I realized the fjords weren’t so much a destination as they were everything we were seeing as we drove through them. I had this vision of icebergs, deep blue water and Free Willy zipping around in a bay. It’s good to destroy preconceived notions.

Stykki is tiny, and we were told everything was closed, except for the gas station and the bakery across from it. And what we’re calling the “Bonus Pig”, a mini-market of sorts. We headed towards the bakery and were finally rewarded with the option for lunch at 4pm in the afternoon! Tia was grateful I’d spent the last four hours leading the pack, so lunch was free for me. Thanks, Tia!

As we sat in the bakery, a few different clumps of people came and went. We were surprised by a trio of young American women, including a nun in a blue habit from an order in Argentina. Apparently there are 3 nuns and a father who minister to the tiny community. The two other women had been rescued by the nuns after getting stuck on a glacier the previous day. Super nuns! We wondered how the nuns could spot people getting marooned on a glacier, and guessed that maybe they put a sign on them suggesting a leisurely drive across the glacier.

Fortunately, lunch made a big difference in my outlook on life, and we headed out for the trek back to Reykjavik. We made the decision to avoid completely rounding the peninsula, and to stick to the main, paved road for the trip back, and to avoid using the tunnel. We were rewarded with more amazing views of the fjords, gorgeous hidden waterfalls, and even a visit from wild icelandic ponies!

Dinner was at a new restaurant called Grillmarkadurinn, a place we’d noticed our first night in Reykjavik. It seemed like it would be very, very nice, and we spent that night trying to figure out what it was named. It was hidden behind a building, and we were initially drawn to it by the prominently displayed light fixture in their central stairwell, unavoidably hanging in the front windows. Fortunately, we have a level 36 Internet searching mage, and we armed ourselves with a reservation for 8:30 and headed over tonight.

The interior is modern rustic, with hammered patinas, wood and wood-based Eames furniture throughout. The front of the bar and columns downstairs were “wallpapered” with fish skins, with a massive slate wall on one side of the room, and one of moss on the other. Very warm and friendly, and the food is fantastic!

I started with an anise martini: it tasted marvelous, and the visual was top-notch. We ordered a few bottles of wine for the table (I chose a white Burgundy—big surprise) and started with a variety of appetizers: langoustine puff pastry, puffin (!), minke whale (!!), salmon ceviche, lamb skewers…

I tried both the whale and puffin. I don’t think I could get past my guilt over eating a whale: it didn’t taste like it was worth it to me. Sort of like a gamier roast beef. The puffin was a winner, on the other hand. Kind of like goose or quail. The lamb skewers were overdone and spicy, but the salmon ceviche was excellent, and covered in roe. Kind of like sushi-meets-oyakodon in a way.

A number of us got the fish gourmet entree, which included small bowls of salad, mushrooms (?) and curly fries (??). Mlis had the foresight to order coriander-mayo on the side, which paired well with the fries. The fish part of the entree were three small piles of fish prepared in various ways: salted cod, salmon and monkfish. The salmon prep was the best by far. I choked down the monkfish (texture, ick) and the cod was cod.

The best was last: I ordered a latte (excellent!) and the Grillmarket Chocolate dessert, which was this seeming ball of chocolate resting on a bed of fruit and chocolate sauces. We were about to dig in when a waiter came running over to pour caramel over all of it. I momentarily thought it was going to be overwhelmingly sweet, but the chocolate ball began to disintegrate, revealing a smaller dessert inside, with small rice krispy-like pop rocks that would continue popping in your mouth. It was insanely tasty.

I’m glad I got dessert this time.

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