The Golden Circle. Hella.

Gulfoss. Just another jaw-droppingly beautiful waterfall.

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.

Standing between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

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?

Geysir’s little brother, whose very complicated Icelandic name escapes me.

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.

Icelandic horses
They were sweet. But they really wanted food.

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.

The Stracta Hotel. Or, the Arctic Research Base. Take your pick.

Tomorrow: The waylaid hike, the rainy glacier, puffins and a four-star dinner in the middle of nowhere.

Reykjavik: Windy, spendy, quirky

IMG_0928We left Reykjavik yesterday, and we’re now in Hella, a town that our new Icelandic friend Elsi called “a drive-through town.” Steve and I thought she was being a bit mean, but actually, she’s right. Anyway, it’s our base of operations for the next couple of days.

Steve and I arrived in Reykjavik at 9 a.m., after a 5 1/2 hour overnight flight that was not conducive for sleeping. It was more cramped, somehow, than the flight we took from SFO to Minneapolis, and I just can’t figure out how to sleep on planes anymore. So we landed in Reykjavik very tired, and very impressed by the efficient, IKEA- inspired airport.

I love Scandinavian design — all the light birch wood, and clean lines and occasional pops of bright color. Iceland is my kind of joint.

We boarded a FlyBus to transport us to Reykjavik proper, and passed through the moonscape-y Reykjanes peninsula, all lava rocks and random puffs of steam from where the earth is apparently roiling with lava. Later, our new friend Dagbjartur, told us that people sometimes go out into the lava fields and fall into a crevasse that was camouflaged by moss. They get injured and stuck down there and the moss just grows back over them and that’s the end of that person. Dag would know: He’s the director of the search and rescue school at ICE-SAR, or Iceland Search and Rescue. Dag is a good person to know when you’re in Iceland.

We got to our hotel eventually, the Centerhotel Thingholt, which was smack in the middle of downtown. I mean Pier 39. I mean Pike’s Place Market. You catch my drift? Tourists, everywhere. Including us.

The Centerhotel Thingholt is a “boutique hotel,” which means it’s trendy and hip and the rooms are the size of postage stamps. It makes Steve feel bad when I say that, but it’s not his fault. The rooms were very nice, the hotel had a good, free breakfast and the location was prime. We could, and did, walk everywhere.

Our new friend Dag.

Where did we walk? Well, that first day we walked to the Cafe Paris, because it was close, and had lunch. Then we walked back and fell asleep for a few hours, and then got up and had an incredible dinner at the Resto restaurant, with Dag and Elsi. In his off hours, Dag works for NetHope as a contractor, like me. He and Elsi were incredibly kind and gave us all kinds of tips on where to go and what to do. They warned us that Iceland was unbelievably expensive, and that if you buy bottled water in Iceland, you’re a sucker. “It may not be the cleanest, but it’s the best tasting,” declared Elsi.

We went back to the hotel to collapse but were awakened at about 3 a.m. by what seemed to be a rave occurring beneath us. (Are raves still a thing?) We heard bass, lots of bass, and people yelling “Wooooo!” and when we looked outside, it looked like it was maybe 11 a.m., but no, we checked, and it was 3 a.m., because that’s how it is in Iceland in the summer. So we shut the curtains as tight as we could and jammed our earplugs in as far as they’d go, and the next day we asked to change rooms and got a quiet and slightly bigger room on the other side of the hotel.

Tourists, everywhere. 

So: Morning in Reykjavik. We stumbled downstairs 10 minutes before the breakfast was due to end and then hit the streets. My dad made a crack when he was driving us to the airport about the flight probably being empty because who in the hell wants to go to Iceland? Everyone, that’s who: Americans and Brits and Germans and French and I lost count of all the languages I heard around Reykjavik. The place was crawling with tourists.

Steve and I walked outside and got our first real taste of Icelandic wind. The temperature was in the mid-50s, but the winds make it much chillier, so I went back upstairs and got another layer. In most of the pictures Steve took of me around Reykjavik, I look like a big shapeless blob because I’m so bundled up. So then we walked around “The Pond” and came to the National Museum, which was completely awesome and totally worth it.

The Pond.

I hadn’t studied up much on Icelandic history before we came, so I got the whole scoop at the Museum. In a nutshell, Nordic and British Vikings came over in the 9th century and settled the island and established a parliament in Thingvellir (we went there). Christianity came to Iceland in about 1000, and by the middle of the 12th century, Norway was in charge. By 1380, both Norway and Iceland came under Danish rule, and Iceland got totally screwed because it could only trade with Denmark.

It gets worse: One-third of Iceland’s population was wiped out by the Black Plague in 1402. In the late 1700s, volcanic eruptions destroy Icelandic farmland and there’s mass starvation. One hundred years later, Icelanders hightailed it to North America en masse, settling mostly in Canada (Manitoba, to be precise). Iceland became a republic in 1944, was a founding member of the United Nations, and has seen its population grow to 330,000, thanks in large part to the fishing industry. Iceland ranks third on the World Happiness Report, proving that you don’t necessarily need sunshine to be happy.

The only known fragment from a Viking drinking vessel in all of Iceland.

After the National Museum, we ate kebabs and went to the Settlement Exhibition. That was also really interesting. It was underground, and built around the site of a 10th century Viking longhouse, which was discovered during an excavation in 2001 and left intact.

Then we went over to the Harpa, Reykjavik’s controversial concert hall. Controversial because it was in the middle of being constructed during Iceland’s economic crash, and the Harpa is the most expensive building in Iceland to date. It looks like a huge glass ship, perched on the harbor.

That night, we took Dag and Elsi’s advice and went to Austur-Indiafelagid Ehf, described as the best Indian food outside of India. I’ve never been to India, but the food at Austur-Indiafelagid Ehf was incredible — and we felt like we’d lucked out getting in (we didn’t have a reservation). It was also bloody expensive — a theme for Reykjavik, and as we’d find, for all of Iceland.

The next day, July 10, was my birthday, so I got to direct the agenda. First, I rode the exercise bike in the overheated exercise room at the gym and showed up to breakfast drenched in sweat and ready for my Skyr. (Why don’t we have Skyr in the U.S.? It’s got 17 grams of protein per serving, and it’s delicious.) Then, shopping. (After a shower, of course. I’m not a barbarian.)

I like to shop a great deal, and I wouldn’t call myself a bargain-hunter, but the prices in Iceland are unequivocally insane. We went to Geysir, Iceland’s big label, and they had cool stuff. I just wasn’t about to pay $250 for a wool sweater that didn’t fit quite right, or a pair of Lee jeans, which were going for $175. (Like I’d ever wear Lee jeans anyway.)

Puffin Shop

I finally bought a lopapeysa, a traditional, hand-knitted sweater made from Icelandic wool at an unassuming corner store, but it’s really scratchy and I will have to wear a long-sleeved shirt under it. I’ll wear it maybe once a year in Seattle, so all told, a terrific value. After an amazing Icelandic vegan meal, we checked out some of the tourist shops (which Elsi calls “Puffin Shops”) to pick up stuff for the boys. We spent 9,200 Icelandic krona on crappy t-shirts that say “Iceland” on them.

This is getting really long. But I have to mention the fabulous meal we had at Grillmarkadurinn. This super-hip spot books out about a month in advance, and the food was spectacular. I got a selection of perfectly grilled fish and Steve went the carnivore route: lamb, beef and duck. I remember being nervous that I was going to have to eat lamb head or rotten shark but the food has been top-notch here, on par with any great city in the world.

It looked like midday at 10 p.m., but we rolled back to the Thingholt and packed up. Because the next day, we were hitting the Ring Road, and the Golden Circle.