Tag Archives: Iceland

Fjording and Fooding

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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The Golden Circle

It turns out using an iPad to write and publish blog posts isn’t the easiest thing in the world. Writing the words is, but getting all the photos uploaded is a nightmare, and a real hindrance to doing a daily update. I figure I can at least write things down until I have a moment to upload some photos. I need practice writing, anyway.

Iceland’s water smells sulfuric. Everywhere. It becomes obvious why when you head inland to check out some of the natural water features. Our group (now numbering eight) set out in the morning in two Suzuki 4x4s to take in the Golden Circle Tour, an absolute must while visiting. It captures many of the things that make Iceland’s natural geography unique, including:

You also can check out Iceland’s original seat of the Catholic Church (almost protestant in its interior sensibilities) and a city that’s Not Reykjavik, too.

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The sun here is incredibly bright when it’s out, and provides for stark contrast in almost every photo. It was a perfect day to be taking in these sights as a result. And despite lots of construction to allow you to walk through many of these natural wonders, having a good pair of boots is a good idea. The water in the stream flowing beside you may actually almost be boiling, as it turns out.

Most of the stops along the tour have restrooms, food and plenty of opportunity to take great photos. My meals and drinks of choice along the way today were hot dogs and hot chocolate. The Icelanders are quite proud of their hot dogs, so of course I had to put a couple in my mouth.

After the tour, we attempted to find dinner in the southern city of Selfoss, but the recommendations we’d been given were no longer in business. After trying to check out some places on the go, we decided to head back to Reykjavik, with the full moon rising in the east, and the sun simultaneously setting in the west.

Dinner was at the Skolabru restaurant where the sleek, minimal interior was in stark contrast to the traditional dollhouse architecture out front. Dinner was okay: 4000Ikr ($33) for a salmon entree with some house white wine (Chardonnay) set to a 70s soundtrack. The food was good, but the overall experience wasn’t particularly compelling.

I probably should have gotten dessert.

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Ég tala ekki íslensku.

(I don’t speak Icelandic.)

Despite that, people keep trying to speak it to me.

The flight over was uneventful, passengers seemingly evenly split among Americans, Brits and Icelanders. The chicly-attired and blonde (naturally) flight attendants were efficient and conspiratorial, offering sly winks as they managed our 6 hours across the Atlantic.

A couple times they’d try to talk to me in Icelandic, and I wonder what was setting them off, because they seemed to know when to use English otherwise for other people. Was it my attire? My hair and eye color? The way I carry myself?

Icelanders seem to be well put together, healthy within their age brackets, and the older women reminded me of my maternal grandmother in her grander days: perfumed and moisturized with blonde or white hair, chunky baubles and rings over stylish and elegant clothing.

After a smooth landing, we were quickly ushered through immigration, where I answered no questions and filled out no forms—do bad people just skip Iceland? Or do Icelanders trust people more?—and then it was onto a bus for a 2 minute ride to the main terminal to pick up luggage. The airport isn’t much bigger than your average small regional airport in the US, and it feels like one you’d find in the northern climates back in the states, with lots of wood and natural materials throughout. Mlis and Steph arrived shortly after and after a waltz through customs (again, no questions) the three of us joined our rental car representative to pick up our cars.

A note about Icelandic men… I’ve dated a couple guys of Scandinavian descent over the last couple of years, and the resemblance is uncanny. As we’ve been traveling around the city, I’ll startle as I notice someone walking or standing in my peripheral vision, only to realize that on second look, whoever he is, he isn’t anyone I know.

The women are—mostly true to stereotype—blonde, except for the one who lives above us and spends much of her time walking loudly on the concrete floor in clogs. I suspect she’s related to the Björk, and I shall call her Stömpi.

It’s chilly here, like Michigan in early December. Skies are a continual churn of sunny, slate gray and blue, and the water surrounding the city reflects that. I thought my windbreaker, hat and gloves might be overkill, but they’re not. Cars are mostly diesel, and either very small, or 4×4 trucks to deal with conditions outside the city. We have two 4x4s ourselves, and as we drove to Reykjavik from the airport in Keflavik, the primeval volcanic landscape coming to life under a dramatic sunrise just off the road provided a good potential reason for having them. A point in contrast: we also saw a Taco Bell.

After settling into the apartment below Stömpi, we took a brief walk around the city to find food, ending up at a place called Cafe Babalu, which was alarmingly stuffed with the women’s Canadian hockey team. The owners were just slightly concerned, quietly scurrying about and nervously glancing at their very full dining area. The city was pretty sleepy, so it was the only thing we could find open at that point on Sunday morning.

Dinner was after another walk around town (after crashing into a snoozing heap from jet lag in the afternoon), and we ended up at a decent place called Cafe Paris. We shared a goat cheese appetizer at the table, and had variants on cod and a lamb-based Icelandic goulash for dinner. The chocolate cake was a little too sugary for me, but it seems like every sweet is served with a side of real whipped cream which helps cut down on it. The cappuccino was excellent!

On the walk home, we stopped by a mini-market just down the street from us called 11-11. As I smartly loaded up my basket with breakfast items and then stylishly brought them to the cashier, he babbled at me in Icelandic. It turns out he was just asking if I wanted a plastic bag, but it’s the first time I’ve been somewhere I can’t actually speak the language. I paused, and instead of using the few words I do have, I switched into English and we all winced as the charade came to an end.

That said, everyone around here speaks English, and it’s all over the buildings, signs and windows. They seem to get that it’s probably in their best interest to be accommodating, because it’s probably few the number of people who are going to learn to speak a language only used by 300,000 people in the world.

However, tomorrow, I’m going to try.

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Reykjavík bound!

I’m sitting at the gate at Dulles in DC, awaiting my flight to Reykjavik. The reaction I’ve gotten so far has been “Iceland!” and then, “why Iceland?!” And the answer is “to understand Björk”. No, not really. Well, sort of.

Iceland seems like an exotic place to me: it’s on TOP of the world. Get out Google Earth (because who has a globe?) and center it on the equator. Spin the world around. Do you see Iceland? No, because it is ON TOP. Almost the arctic circle. Those mercator maps are full of lies! A volcanic ice ball of an island, fortunately heated by the gulf stream. It gets colder where I live, but our shortest day is 9 hours, not 2. Volcanic! Ice! I like juxtaposition. (I just hope no volcanos go off while I’m there.)

Roughly populated by the same number of people who live in my county back home, it’s hard to believe it’s an independent country. The only people they’ve gone to war with are the British, and that was over cod. There aren’t any trees, or at least not big ones. And if any of them are remotely like Björk, I suppose I’ll be surprised, but it probably won’t last long. (The people. I suspect the trees are very Björk-like.)

Exotic is hard for me to come by. I spent my teens in Japan, a place synonymous with exotic for many people. I get why that is, but to me, it’s also home. I understand how it works. I can read the signs and understand what people are saying. Once you get to that point, you can start to see the flaws in a place, and the exotic begins to wear thin. The rest of Europe seems reasonable: you’d want to go there to see history, or where your ancestors came from, or if it really lives up to all those chick flicks. There’s warm weather, beaches, vineyards, biergartens, which are very very nice, but not particularly exotic.

I haven’t been out of the states in over 9 years—Canada doesn’t count; I love Canada, and am of Canadian descent, even (mon Ecossais-Québécois grand-père, une travailleuse du Canada)—so I’ve been itching to go somewhere new and interesting, where few of my friends have gone before. I’m also curious to see if it provides any insight into what makes Björk tick. I get the cold, and the lack of sunlight, but is there more to it? Besides marrying Matthew Barney?

It’s been a long time coming. I decided I wanted to go there while driving back to university one night eighteen years ago, in the fall of 1993. I was speeding along through the crisp Fall night, the sounds of Björk’s solo debut filling the car, and I wanted to know… why.

So I’m off to Reykjavik and beyond to see what it’s about. I’m meeting up with old friends from university, and we’re going to a music festival during the latter part of the week we’re there. Of course Björk will be there, along with bands you’ve never heard of, AND Yoko Ono! I’m going to check out the hot springs, and hopefully a volcano or two. I can’t wait.

Ekki treysa nunnum.

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