Saturday, January 30, 2010

Letters from Iceland: Days 5-6

On the morning of our final full day in Iceland, Jennifer and I went on a half-day horseback riding tour through Eldhester Farm, which is located in Ölfus. The Icelandic horse is apparently a very special breed of horse because it has five gaits, instead of the usual three. The two additional ones are the tölt (somewhere between a walk and a trot) and the flugskeið (flying pace), and we were able to try the tölt for about half of our riding time. I was glad to try it, but I'm pretty terrible at riding, and we were on English saddles, so my legs were pretty sore from trying to stay on with all the bouncing around. The horses are fairly short, so I suppose falling off wouldn't have been quite as terrifying as falling off the other horses I've been on, but still, I have a pretty major fear of paralysis. Thanks, Christopher Reeves. The terrain the horses can cover was pretty amazing (we went through those epic lava fields covered in moss, along with some more typical things like mud and streams), and it was nice to be able to experience riding one after hearing so much about them.

After that, we stopped into the Sægrefinn for the most amazing lobster soup I've had in a long, long time. The restaurant is an adorable little nautical nook, and the soup is similar to a bisque, but not quite as creamy. I would absolutely recommend stopping in there if you make it Reykjavik. When we returned to the room, we decided to split up for the afternoon to finish up some shopping and any last minute things we wanted to see. I bought some more yarn (of course) and that nativity set, and headed back to the room early to shower because I'd worn one of their suits and it reeked of horse. We had dinner at Prikið, a two-level coffeehouse with meals. I finally got my lamb, which was much cheaper than we'd found anywhere else, and pretty good. The service was incredibly bad, but that wasn't the worst thing in the world, and we headed to Kofi Tómasar Frænda again for dessert, because it's just the greatest place ever.

Our final day in Iceland consisted mainly of heading to the National Gallery and getting coffee before taking the last bus to the airport for our flight. The National Gallery wasn't anything like what I'd expected, but it was fun nonetheless. I'd been told there would be lots of interesting landscapes and scenes from folklore, but there really wasn't a single thing along those lines. Instead, there was a good amount of modern art from Icelandic artists. None of it spoke to me on a particularly deep level, but there were a few intriguing pieces. In particularly, I liked a work that was the product of a performance art piece which involved the artist spitting and splattering black paint over white lava rocks and the walls, and a room that was knitted into patterns on the inside, which you could see from a small hole in the side.

The ride to the airport was mostly uneventful, and we talked to a nice Australian who was traveling around the world during a 10-week paid leave for the ride over. There was extra security at the airport, which was a bit of a hassle, but I'm all for not being killed midflight, so even that didn't really bother me. A few movies later (Public Enemies and A Life Less Ordinary) and we'd landed in New York. The trip had ended.

Overall, I'm glad I went to Iceland. It was a quiet trip, mostly, and I liked that. It gave me a lot of time for contemplation, and it really solidified the fact that I can go somewhere and sit and absorb and be happy that way. It also helped me to realize that some things need to be experienced for themselves. Before we left, I'd been told I was crazy for going in the winter when it was dark and cold, and it turns out it wasn't either of those things, really. We also came to realize that printed material and websites were often wrong about a variety of things there, from the price of items to the opening hours of different sights, and without a watch, I felt free of preconceptions there. Additionally, the landscape is truly beautiful and truly different from anything I'd seen anywhere else. It was humbling to be so far away from everything, and I loved it. It was really more than I'd hoped for, and a perfect example of the reason I travel.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Letters from Iceland: Day 4

Yesterday, we embarked on the Golden Circle tour run by Reykjavik Excursions. At 9800kr, it's not too expensive (about $75), especially when you consider that it is a full-day tour. They picked us up at our hotel at around 8:10am, and dropped us back off in downtown Reykjavik around 4:45pm. Between then, we saw some really amazing sights, and while I generally really don't enjoy tours (and did, on several occasions think, gee, this would be really great if there weren't 30 other people behind me), I do think it was worth it for this particular trip, because there's no other way to get to these places except renting a car, and our tourguide gave us an awful lot of information and history that we couldn't have gotten any other way.

Our first stop was Þingvellir, a national park and the spot of the first Icelandic Parliament in 930 CE. There isn't much in the way of the Parliament left to see, but our guide explained some of the first laws and to get to the site you walk between two cliff-edges, which were created by the separating of the American continental plate from the European plate. It was fairly dark (we arrived there around 9:30am), but started to brighten as we walked, which was lovely. It's dark a lot here, but not always pitch-black, and I enjoy seeing the light at different points. Dark mornings are really beautiful shades of blue, and the black rock is lovely against it.

We stopped a bit later at Skálholt to see the church there. Apparently the mural at the alter and the stained glass windows are the two most valuable pieces of art in Iceland, and they are very pretty. I like simple wood churches, and so this was right up my alley. Our tourguide gave us a not-so-brief history of religion in Iceland, and we saw the sod-and-stone passage that leads out of the church, as well as a really old coffin, in the basement.

While we were on the road, it started snowing, which was actually nice, since everyone kept telling us how cold and snowy it was going to be, and we hadn't seen any snow at all. We had to cut our visit at the Gullfoss short by a half hour, so we only had an hour to see the amazing waterfall and eat what is apparently the "best" meat-soup in Iceland. Still, it was icing out and so a little slippery to get to the waterfall and not exactly conducive to photography or thinking, so I didn't mind getting the full amount of time. The waterfall is enormous, and slightly more scenic than Niagara Falls, although not nearly as distinctive. The meat-soup was delicious, and although it had extremely good and tender lamb, I couldn't help but think it tasted like my grandmother's beef-barley soup, and that made me love it even more.
We loaded back onto the bus, soaked, and headed to Geysir to see the original Geysir (where the word for Old Faithful and all of those comes from), and it's more active brother, Strokkur. We saw Strokkur go off twice. I may need to stop here because of all the double-entendres I am seeing in this paragraph (and in the future of this paragraph if I don't stop). It was nice to see, especially because it was a little warmer and only raining, and I did keep thinking, imagine stumbling upon this in the wild. I am thinking a lot on this trip of what it was like for the first people to come here, or to any part of the New World. There's a poem in that somewhere...

Our tour-guide gave us a special surprise, and brought us to his favorite waterfall, the Fox Falls. It was nice to get the extra experience, and the falls had a salmon-letter, which I had never seen before. It's essentially a staircase for salmon so that they can swim up and down a waterfall without any problems. I am really, really into the idea, and see another poem in this. Of course, it was still raining and no one really wanted to be out in the cold for much time, so we all hung out for about ten minutes before getting on the bus again.
The sun came out again while we were driving, and we stopped at the largest and newest geothermal energy plant in Iceland (and second largest in the world) at Hellisheiði. Iceland uses mostly geothermal energy, which is a good thing, I think. I have to research more into it, because you can't get all your information from a power-plant itself and expect it to be accurate, but they made it seem pretty safe and environmentally friendly. We returned to Reykjavik and spent the evening relaxing, enjoying pizza from a nearby place in the room before getting some coffee at Kofi Tómasar Frænda, the artsy-coffee-place-heaven I never managed to find in Brooklyn. I love it.
And, once again, I've written too much. I'll update tomorrow night when I'm back home about today's adventures and my overall experience in Iceland.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Letters from Iceland: Day 3

After spending much of Sunday traveling to Reykjavik and wandering around the city, we spent most of Monday also wandering around the city. We tried to go to the National Gallery (which apparently has some fantastic hallucinogenic landscapes and portraits of fairy-creatures), but it turns out that I misread the book, and it is actually closed on Mondays (like all museums all over the world). Hopefully I'll have some interesting things to post about that on Thursday night. After that small disappointment, we walked around Tjörnin, a small pond near the museum, and watched some older Icelandic men feed the swans. Although I'd always thought you only had one swan-couple to a lake, there were an awful lot here, so either I was wrong or Icelandic swans get along better than Mahopac swans.

We headed up Laugavegur to do some shopping, stopping in wherever we found something interesting, and generally not buying much. A lot of the shops here remind me of Brooklyn shops. There are a lot of really simple, really expensive boutiques, as well as a lot of vintage shops and places that sell off-beat merchandise. There's even a shop devoted to selling screenprinted American Apparel. My cousin, Jennifer, is really into music, so we stopped into a few music stores on the way, and I overcame the temptation to buy any Sigur Rós, because Roger has most of the albums anyway, I think, and I don't really need any CDs. (Roger made me start listening to them when we booked the trip, and I saw Heima on the plane, and I'm really quite in love with them. This is surprising to me, because until about six weeks ago, I thought they sounded just like Rammstein. Good god, I was wrong.) I bought some lava-stone earrings for myself at a little jewelry store that was having a sale, and we went to the Handknitting Association of Iceland. This was by far my favorite store. They have beautiful handknit items, and also sell yarn individually. The miraculous thing about the yarn? It's absolutely real wool (from Icelandic sheep, so it's double-layered and waterproof) and it costs about half what synthetics at home cost. I bought 6 skeins, and I'm seriously considering getting more. I'm also considering buying a sweater with the traditional pattern on it, but they're about $100, and I'm not sure how often I would actually wear it, given that I'm allergic to wool and pretty much never wear any of the wool sweaters I already have. I also made some requisite purchases at a tourist shop (my mother collects magnets) and checked out the Christmas shop down the street from our hotel. I'll get an ornament from there for myself, and I may also buy a felted nativity set there that I love. It feels weird that I've actually acquired several nativities in my travels, given that Christmas is more about family and giving than any religious meaning for me, but there's something really lovely about them.

After all that shopping, we dropped our bags at the hotel and stopped into Cafe Loki for a late lunch. Although I'm not sure it's the best Icelandic food in Iceland, I do think it's one of the best places to try some of the traditional food without going to a fancy restaurant and spending $45 on it (which seems to really be your only alternative). Although it isn't open for dinner, it's open until 6pm and we ate at 4pm, which is somewhere between lunch and a proper dinner. We tried Icelandic Plate II, which gives you 6 different traditional foods to try. Of all of them, the plokkfiskur is the best (and I actually had a whole meal of this on incredibly good hverabraud). The hákarl isn't nearly as bad as everyone says (neither is Brennivín), and since Þorrablót is going on now, I'm glad to have tried it. I don't think I'd eat any Icelandic foods on a regular basis (except for the kleinur, which are good in a very familiar way, and their lamb soup, which taste's like my grandmother's beef-barley soup), but it's all palatable. We relaxed at the hotel for a while, and then headed out later to get drinks and a hot dog at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which is really amazing, and apparently the thing that all Icelanders do after drinking (not unlike New Orleans). We ordered them eina með öllu, with the works, which includes remoulade and crunch onions in addition to ketchup, relish and raw onions. The hot dogs themselves taste a little deeper than an American hot dog, which I'm told is because of the addition of lamb. And, while I can't say that any hot dog that doesn't have chili on it can be the best hot dog in the world, these are really, really good. The crunch onion really improves the whole thing.

Today, we spent all day on the Golden Circle and had a blast. I'll write about it either later tonight or tomorrow, because the entry for Monday was only meant to be one paragraph, and I don't want to exhaust you with all my writing.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Letters from Iceland: Days 1-2

My cousin and I made it safely to Iceland early on Saturday morning, and we're enjoying ourselves immensely. We arrived in Keflavik at 6:45am, and one of the women from the Northern Light Inn, our hotel, came to the airport to pick us up. It was wonderful not to have to worry about getting from the airport to the hotel (the transportation here seems to be primarily tour buses or rental cars, except for in Reykjavik), and the women who work at the hotel are often willing to drive you to nearby places for free. We checked into the hotel and took a nap until around 10:30am. The hotel is very nice, but a little overpriced because it's one of only two hotels near the Blue Lagoon. They have a very welcoming common area with good coffee and cookies, and a nice viewing room for the aurora borealis (which we still haven't seen, due to cloudy conditions). They also have a restaurant, which we tried for dinner on Saturday. It's a nice room and has pretty good food, which is, again, a bit expensive due to the captive audience. They did have very good skyr for dessert, with cream and liquor. That's another thing about this trip. I'm in love with skyr, and very sad it's so expensive in the US.

After our nap, we went over to the Blue Lagoon, which is apparently one of the most popular things to do in Iceland. The Blue Lagoon is a medical spa, and mineral bathing pool. The pool is inset into a lava field, and is actually the run-off from the geothermal plant nearby. Who would ever have thought we'd be swimming in mineral water from a power plant? It's actually really lovely, and though the wind was very powerful, the water was very warm (and hot around certain areas, which I loved), and it was a lot of fun to run from the very nice showers (where you had unlimited use of the spa's very expensive conditioners and shower gel) into the freezing air and then into the milky blue waters. They also had silica mud in boxes around the pool, so that you could do a face mask, and since I've loved face-masks since I was about eight-years-old, sitting around in a mineral bath with one on was pretty much the coolest thing ever. We had skyr shakes at the cafe there, and also made use of their sauna and steam rooms (my favorite things in the world). It's very touristy, and at 4200kr (a little under $40), it is a pretty expensive trip, but we spent the whole day there, and I would say it was definitely worth it.

On Sunday morning, we woke up a little early and had free breakfast at the hotel before heading out on a little hike through the lava fields. I've seen lava fields before (in Hawaii), but these were completely different. The jagged black rock is covered in many places with a round green moss, and the combination is beautiful, especially against a fast-moving grey sky like the one we had. It's been cold, but not freezing, and the hike was invigorating. When we returned to the hotel, we checked out, and ended up missing the next bus to Reykjavik, so we hung around the Blue Lagoon reading (you can get into the cafe for free) for two hours before making the trip to Reykjavik. The bus dropped us right in front of our hotel here, the CenterHotel Skjaldbreið, which is a little dingy, but for $65 a night, has an amazing location and free breakfast. We walked around the city until dark, taking in the port, some lovely architecture, and the Hallgrímskirkja, an enormous concrete church on a hill. After, we stopped at a 10-11 (yes, really) for some Icelandic groceries, and enjoyed a dinner of skyr and Icelandic chocolate at the hotel. We watched some Icelandic travel shows, and then headed out for drinks at the Cafe Paris (all the cafes here turn into bars around 10pm) before tucking in for the night.
Today, we're off to do some shopping, check out the National Gallery, and try some traditional Icelandic food.