Reykjavik from our hotel balcony

Saturday, 2005-09-03

We arrived Iceland at ass o'clock in the morning. Some of us (Jess) better rested than others (Jer). Each of us got out 10k kronur from the ATM, because it was near the middle of the list. Later learned that this was around US$166.66 (repeating). Unfortunately, this is not a lot of money in IS; the short ride to the city set us back 1,150K each.

Anyway, we arrived at our hotel at slightly after ass o'clock (this being around 8am). The hotel owner, Arni, was waiting for us out front, which was very nice of him. Like everyone else on Reykjavik, he spoke perfect English. He told us where we could breakfast early in the morning. We headed over to a nearby cafe, the Grey Cat, which had just opened, and got our first look at Reykjavik food prices. Over $1 for about 3oz of bottled orange juice. The food was quite tasty, though. (Jess had eggs, bacon, fried potatoes, tomato and toast; Jer had a BLT on a bagel with cream cheese.) One immediate bit of culture shock was the sugar. In Iceland, sugar is made from greenhouse beets — as opposed to sugar cane — and is quite fruity compared to "regular" sugar. Anyway, our stomachs heavier, and our wallets lighter, we wandered the Reykjavik shopping street while they emptied and cleaned our room (a studio apartment, No. 512, at Room with a View). We didn't venture too far from the hotel, but we did explore the harbor.

Once we were able to claim our room, we took showers, which were refreshing, despite the sulfurous water. After dressing, we headed out to First Vegetarian for lunch. (It's real name is Á næstu grösum (literally "On next grasses" but more colloquially "In the neighborhood"), but it was the first vegetarian restaurant in Reykjavik, so most English-speakers call it First Vegetarian.) Jer, despite his eating little meat, usually dislikes vegetarian restaurants. He thinks that they tend to get overconcerned with the politics of the food, and forget the presentation. First Vegetarian does not have this problem. Jess had the vegetable "lasagne", more of a bean, mushroom, and vegetable casserole with cheese on top. Jer had bean patties, which were closer to a falafel the standard veggie burger. Both entrees came with herbed brown rice and salad with yoghurt dressing, and both were excellent. During lunch, we decided to cook for ourselves for all 3 breakfasts, and 2 of the diners, that we would hace in Iceland. We made the following grocery list:

Duly sated, we headed out to explore the city center in earnest. We stopped into the tourist information center and booked the Golden Circle tour for the next day. After a bit of wandering, we found ourselves in front of the lovely modern gothic Church of Christ the King, Reykjavik's Catholic cathedral (and only Catholic church, as far as we could tell — it's a Lutheran country). We then headed to the large pond (Tjörnin) near the City Hall. Much to Jer's glee, the pond contained geese, swans, seagulls and at least two varieties of ducks. We watched small children feed bread to the birds, who didn't try very hard to get it. They're obviously overfed!

We walked through the City Hall, which had several exhibitions in the public rooms. Notably, there was a scale model topographical map of Iceland, which took 4 men over 4 years to complete. It gave us a good feeling for the tiny size of the country — the whole thing was less than 100 feet wide, but they had modeled the airport runways, and they were a few inches long.

We left city hall and continued to walk around the pond. We there saw our first rainbow of the trip in the spray from the pond's fountain. We then headed up the hill to Hallgrimskirkja, the biggest church in the country (named after a 17th century poet, the Rev. Hallgrimur Petursson). It's a little funny-looking on the outside, evoking a concrete pipe organ. Inside is a different story — the mostly monochromatic concrete construction with tall arched windows manages to soar and feel very airy. We paid our $6 a piece to take the elevator to the top, which gave us the best views of the city and its surrounds that you can get without a helicopter. The church has a really cool baptismal font, too.

Out front of the church is a statue of Liefur Eiriksson that was donated by the US. Liefur is known as Lief Ericson here in the US for some reason (nickname?). The engravers spelled it "Liefr" which is apparently the Old Norse spelling.

Leaving the church and Liefur behind, we set off to Mokka, a café known for its fresh waffles with whipped cream and jam. Jess quickly dispatched one, with Jer's assistance. It was delicious! Then, since we were no longer even the slightest bit peckish, we set off for the 10-11 grocery to lay in provisions. The store was more like an overgrown mini-mart than a supermarket, but we were able to find what we wanted. Well, except the herring and lichen. We did see dried fish strips, but decided on eggs and bacon instead. We got local strawberries, skyr (a yoghurt-like dairy product, we're told) and Icelandic candy.

We returned to our room and vegged out a bit before heading down to our host's lovely hottub. It was wonderfully relaxing, looking out over the rooftops of Reykjavik while soaking our aching bodies. Then we had to get out, and reality hit us like a ton of bricks — it was 50 degrees and we were sopping wet on a balcony, exposed to the wind! Needless to say, we dried off, re-covered the hottub and went inside as quickly as possible.

Warm, dry and wearing jammies, Jer made dinner of pasta and Barilla olive sauce from the grocery store. We climbed into bed around 9.

Sunday, 2005-09-04

We awoke when the alarm went off at 6. Well, we awoke at 5 when the Allergy Pill Wearing Off faction achieved its inevitable victory over the Jet Lag Sleep Of The Dead faction, and Jess's nose awoke her. (We could faintly hear revelers taking part in the "runtur", Reykjavik's weekend pub crawl that ends at dawn.) We went back to sleep, though. After showering, we had a lovely breakfast of eggs and bacon (Mr. Atkins smiled down from heaven) with tea and juice. We then got muffins at the 10-11 and gobbled them up (Mr. Atkins wept). We headed outside, where street sweepers were busily sweeping up the shards of glittering broken glass from the runtur.

At 8:30, the bus arrived to whisk us off on the Golden Circle tour. Our guide, Hildur (referred to as Helga by our embarrassing countymen), was a font of both information and national pride. She also partly succeeded in concealing her distain when people asked her questions that revealed their stupidity or the inferiority of their barbaric cultures ("Are there any dental schools in Iceland?", "Are there slums in Reykjavik?", "Why aren't there any trains in Iceland?", "Do you have to pay into the health care system?"). She spoke excellent English with a charming accent, which was most noticeable when she spoke of the settlement of Iceland by the "Wikings" in the 9th century.

Our first stop was in the village of Hveragerði, the center of horticulture in Iceland. Most of the country's vegetables are grown there. We saw a number of working greenhouses from the bus, all of had sodium lamps going during the day. Our tour, however, stopped at Eden, a tourist shop and greenhouse nursery. We saw Icelandic bananas, hibiscus and other seemingly unlikely sights, but we wished we could have peeked into the working greenhouses.

The next stop was Kerið, a volcanic crater just by the side of the road. The crater was filled with rainwater, the depth of which varies from 7-14m, depending on the season. The water was colored a rich teal, due to minerals (blue) and algae (green). Also, the ground was bright red, a startling change from the black dirt near Reykjavik, and in much of the rest of Iceland. The black dirt is a sign of recent volcanic activity, whereas the red soil has minerals like iron in it, either through geothermic springs or soil creation, and is thus more fertile.

Our next stop was a bonus that Hildur and Karl, our driver, added to the itinerary. We stopped at Faxi, a lovely waterfall with a salmon run. Jer walked down to the edge of the falls and peered into the salmon run, but unfortunately it was the wrong season. Jess stayed up at the scenic overlook, enjoying the view and avoiding the cold spray.

Next was Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, said to be Iceland's most beautiful waterfall. The power of the falls was mindboggling, and the view was amazing, as we were able to walk right to the edge of the cliff overlooking the rapids. In one place, there was less than two yards and a flimsy rope between us and the falls!

Our lunchtime stop was at the Geysir National Park. We grabbed a quick lunch in the cafeteria. Jess ordered an Icelandic hotdog (made with lamb, and topped with ketchup, mustard, remoulade, and crispy fried onions, mmm), and Jer had a ham, tomato and cheese panini on delicious herbed bread. Our bellies filled, we headed out to the real attraction: the geysers. They were like the guidebook says: one bubbling cauldron, two connected pools — one filled with clear spring water, the other with cloudy glacial water, and the O.G., the geyser named Geysir. While Geysir was content to just simmer (it erupts irregularly), its little brother Strokkur goes off about every three minutes. It was quite impressive, and much taller than the ones we saw at Rotorua. We were also allowed to get much closer. For one eruption, Jer purposefully stood right downwind, and was rewarded with a soaking with a torrent of hot, stinky water. Despite the cold of drying off in the Iceland wind, he was grinning like a little kid.

All day we had been passing fields of short, stocky, shaggy Icelandic horses. They come in a wide range of colors, all adorable. After leaving Gullfoss, we happened upon a herd standing in the road. Hildur graciously allowed us to get out of the bus for a horse photo op. While they were skittish at first, the horses soon allowed people to pet them, scratch behind their ears and feed them apples. So cute!

Our last stop was Þingvellir, a gorgeous (though rocky) plain on the bank of a large deep lake, where the Icelandic parliament began meeting in 930. We saw the law rock, where the "law speaker" historically stood to recite all of Iceland's laws to those gathered for parliament. After the first few years, that must have been quite a job. (These days, Parliament sits in Reykjavik and the laws are written.) Þingvellir sits in the rift between the Euro-Asiatic continental plate and the North American plate, so continental drift causes the valley to grow by 2cm per year. Iceland is one of the only places where you can see the edge of a continental plate without a submarine.

On the way back to Reykjavik, we saw a garbage lady (as opposed to a garbage man). Neither one of us had seen one before. After the bus dropped us off, we headed home for restorative tea and hair defluffing (Jess only).

Since we had a light lunch, we set off for an early dinner at Pizza 67, an Icelandic pizza chain. Jess opted for the fish of the day (haddock in a mushroom sauce, with fries and a salad), while Jer ordered the tuna, shrimp, and mussel pizza, which came with cheese and sauce. Jess greatly enjoyed her meal, though the Icelandic hothouse cucumbers on the salad were crisper than any cukes she'd had before. Jer's pizza was interesting, but better than he had feared.

After eating we went for a short walk. We wanted to see the Alþingi, the building that houses the modern parliament. It is a large dark stone 19th century building, with a somewhat incongruous modern glass wing. As we explored the small circular garden behind the building, Jess noticed a set of keys lying in the dirt. Being nice people, we went to the door in the modern wing, where we had spotted a guard. We walked in, much to his surprise (they probably don't get many visitors on Sunday at 9pm), but he seemed quite pleased that we bothered to hand in the keys. So, we got to visit both the historical and modern parliaments, all in one day.

We went home, had tea and Tromp — a wacky Icelandic candy — then headed to bed a bit later than we'd expected (11pm).

Quote of the day: "Oh, shit!" — Jess, upon being surprised by an exploding geyser.

Quote of the day, part 2: "It's disgusting .... this is kinda growing on me." — Jess, upon trying Tromp candy (licorice and marzipan with a chocolate coating).

Monday, 2005-09-05

Up at 7:30, but lazed about until 8. Made breakfast (oj & tea and bacon & eggs again, but it came out much better this time). Headed out for a mostly unsuccessful shopping expedition. Got postcards, at least. Got some pastries for dessert, then some hot dogs for lunch. Jess is really into Icelandic hot dogs (especially the crunchy onions).

After lunch we set off to find the No. 14 bus to Laugardalur, a park which houses (among other things) the Reykjavik Zoo, the Botanical Garden and the largest municipal swimming pool. It turned out that the No. 14 was not the most direct route to the park, but a nice Icelandic lady told us when to get off the bus.

We walked through the park to the Reykjavik Zoo, which was tiny but charming. We saw geese and ducks, seals, pigs and piglets, cows, goats, sheep, Icelandic horses, arctic foxes, mink, pheasants and chickens, rabbits and guineapigs, and reindeer. The sheep were very shaggy (Hildur mentioned yesterday that shearing starts in a week or so), as were the goats and horses. Sadly, the cows were not, not being Highland cattle. The pigs were ginormous, but the piglets were little and hyperactive (and warmed by heatlamps). Jer took the opportunity to pet two goats (who vyed for his attention). Jess got to pet an Icelandic horse briefly, but it soon went back to grazing. The littlest reindeer came near us and watched us curiously, but the older ones (including one with a giant rack) ignored us. In addition to the animals, the zoo had a lovely carousel with Norse gods decorating the outside, but it was closed for the season.

We strolled briefly through part of the Botanical Garden, which had several water features (two modern fountains made from rock, as well as a manmade pond). The gardens themselves resembled a rock garden, with pretty flowers planted amongst the stones. When passing the pond, we scattered a flock of geese, ducks and pigeons gathered to eat crumbs thrown to them by visitors.

Eventually, we made our way up to the Laugardalslaug swimming pool complex. It's Reykjavik's largest, and there were lots of Icelanders and tourists enjoying the water and the weather. After washing thoroughly (as directed by the signs), we tried out the warm kiddie pool, the cooler 50m pool (Jer swam 5 laps, Jess paddled around), the waterslide (though Jess was reluctant, she enjoyed it more than any other one she'd been on), and the 3 outdoor hotpots. We left thoroughly refreshed — it's easy to see why swimming is Iceland's national sport.

Getting back into the city was another bus adventure, but the No. 12 was quite direct (once we managed to locate a bus stop). We headed back to the apartment, where Jer cooked a pasta dinner while Jess ran to the tourist information center to book the bus to the Blue Lagoon.

After dinner we had a first dessert of local strawberries, which were small but delicious. Then we wrote out postcards, ran downstairs to buy more postcards and stamps, and wrote those out too. We ended our evening with the tasty Sandholt pastries (chocolate and Earl Grey mousse for Jess, chocolate and praline mousse for Jess), before heading to bed just after 10pm.

Tuesday, 2005-09-06

The alarm went off at 6:30, and Jer resolutely got up and started making breakfast; Jess joined him somewhat later. After finishing off the eggs, bacon and juice, we showered and packed. While Jer shaved his head, Jess set off to mail the postcards, buy a muffin and use the Net. She succeeded at the first two, but didn't manage the third. Instead she purchaced a chocolate chip muffin at the 10-11. She had her muffin while Jer — with a little help from Jess — had his blueberry skyr (which ended up being sort of an ultra-thick yoghurt). The skyr was good, though it felt suspiciously like it might have talcum-fine sand in it. It came with a clever little folding spade.

Packed and fed, we checked out of Room with a View. We paid in US Dollars (thus shafting poor Arni on the exchange rate. Muhahaha!). Anyway, we had $584, but the total was $585. Arni was willing to let itgo (who wants your stupid American Pesos, anyway?), but we insisted and gave him our remaining change — 68 Kronor (just more than $1). We left our bags with Arni and went off to the Einar Jonsson sculpture garden. Jer was a little dissapointed that we didn't actually have to sneak in, as the Reykjavik guidevertisment said, though it did take us a couple of minutes to find the open gate. Einar Jonsson was Iceland's preeminent sculptor in the early 20th c. His subject matter was quite diverse, including Christian symbols, Norse mythology, universal themes like aging and the seasons, and even modern topics like plane crashes. We enjoyed the sculpture, then headed back to Room with a View to pick up our bags and catch the bus to the Blue Lagoon.

The landscape between Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon is made up of old lava fields. It has been decribed as "lunar", and only the presence of plants on the sides of the road, with occasional patches of green moss on the stones, reminded us of Earth. Most of the area seemed to be covered by greyish sand, but we soon realized that it was actually lichen.

The Blue Lagoon itself is a man-made pool created with runoff from a geothermal power plant. The water is very warm — around body temperature, though quite a bit warmer where it first comes in! The pool is colored blue-green by algae and made milky by silica, and steam rises from it into the surrounding cool air. It was very relaxing to float around in the warm water, explore the man-made grotto, and sit on the submerged benches contemplating the scene. We had such a great time that we only barely caught our bus to the airport! Jer was very excited to find that he could almost float on his back in the salty water, given that he sinks in freshwater.

We grabbed a quick lunch at the airport (a final hotdog for Jess, a plate of Icelandic smoked salmon with caviar and other garnishes for Jer), before catching our flight to London. Using the excellent directions provided by our friend Terry, we made our way to her flat in Hampstead with only minor confusion (and we even managed to stop for a few groceries along the way). We arrived at the flat, ate a snack, and fell into bed shortly before midnight.