Before I describe our journey along Iceland’s Ring Road, I missed a part of our Reykjavik adventure in yesterday’s post: The National Gallery of Iceland, and also, the Reykjavik Museum of Photography, which is actually a gallery room on the top floor of the Reykjavik Library.
I don’t want to be disparaging about Icelandic artists, but it is telling that the main exhibit at the National Gallery was of a Belgian sculptor. A very depressing Belgian sculptor called Berlinde de Bruyckere, whose exhibit was described (and I’m paraphrasing) as depicting humans and animals in various stages of agony and death.
So, from there, we checked out the work of prominent Icelandic artists, who, without exception, trained in Denmark. There was lots of Impressionism, Cezanne-worship and still lifes. (Still lives?) And that makes sense: Iceland’s population was, as someone described to me, trying not to starve until 1944. Much of its art was religious in nature, which we saw at The National Museum the day before.
The photography exhibit was really interesting. It showed farm life in West Fjords of Iceland, which is rapidly diminishing. One-third of Iceland’s population now lives in Reykjavik, with people from the countryside migrating to get jobs in the exploding tourism industry, or in fishing. It showed a side of Iceland that we won’t see — snow-covered tundras, life on working farms, herding sheep, surviving the tough winters.
OK. So, on Monday, we packed up and, in our astronomically expensive Toyota RAV4, hit the Ring Road. It’s a manual transmission, because Europe, but thankfully both Steve and I are Big Kids who can drive stick. It does take a little getting used to, though.
Once we were out of Reykjavik and environs, the landscape changed dramatically. Rows and rows of apartment buildings that can best be described as “functional” gave way to pastoral agrarian scenes, complete with fuzzy green rolling hills, dramatic mountain ranges and huge, expansive skies. One good thing we got out of the National Gallery was the use of the word “limpid” to describe the light in Iceland: It’s a very apt description. The clouds are low, and the sunlight is scattered. The greens are very green and the fields are covered with purple, white and yellow wildflowers. It’s just stunning, Iceland is — beautiful in a way that I’ve never experienced.
People have asked Steve and I why we would go to Iceland. I think we gave answers like, we’ve always wanted to go there, it looks cool, etc. But as I was walking between the tectonic plates at Thingvellir, it came to me: We came to Iceland to see new things. To experience new things. It’s exciting and humbling to be in a place where nothing looks or feels totally familiar.
Thingvellir is the site of the world’s oldest parliament, established in 930 by a bunch of Vikings. Of course, they met outside, because Iceland. Thingveillir is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site both because of its historical significance, but also because it is a visual representation of continental drift. You can actually scuba dive between the two plates. We wandered the moors for about an hour, swatting flies and checking out the diverse flora and fauna. I also had never been on a moor, and kept thinking about “Wuthering Heights.”
From there, we hopped back in the car and headed towards Geysir, which is The First Geyser. The original. I was ready to eat my hand at this point, and eschewed Steve’s idea of eating Zing Bars in the car, so we stopped at a strange little town and paid $70 for a chicken sandwich and a bowl of tomato soup. Did I mention that Iceland is SO VERY EXPENSIVE?
OK. So we get to the Geysir, which isn’t active anymore. But its brother is, so we watched a couple of rounds of Little Brother spurting up water and steam. We also saw profoundly stupid people attempting to ford the rivers of boiling hot water coming from the geysers. We also saw lots of really bad European denim: Dark, distressed white, with white stitching and bling. I kept trying to get Steve to snap a picture, but it’s hard to do without being an asshole.
From Geysir, we headed to Gulfoss, a gigantic, gorgeous, tour-bus infested waterfall. We were beginning to recognize people from both Thingvellir and Geysir, and their Bad Dark Denim. Gulfoss is a very popular day trip from Reykjavik, and the third stop on the Golden Circle tour. We marveled in Gulfoss’ beauty, snapped some photos and headed toward Hella. Along the way, we pulled over so I could pet some horses. They were disappointed that I came empty-handed.
Hella was where we were headed next, and since Icelandic radio is terrible, we listened to a depressing “This American Life” podcast to pass the time. Our hotel for the next three nights, The Stracta, is one of three hotels in Hella, which is comprised of one street. There is a grocery store, a bakery, a pharmacy, a gas station and two downmarket restaurants. The Stracta, which we dubbed the Arctic Research Base, looks as though it was created from a dozen shipping containers. It’s actually quite nice, and new and clean, and in keeping with the Scandinavian design that I so admire. It’s just that the siding is corrugated metal, meant to withstand the worst of Iceland’s weather. Which, I gather, can be quite punishing. Still, the restaurant is good, there are two hot tubs, and several saunas to rest your weary bones.
Tomorrow: The waylaid hike, the rainy glacier, puffins and a four-star dinner in the middle of nowhere.