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Iceland

3 May
View of Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja Church

View of Reykjavik from Hallgrimskirkja Church

I went on a quick weekend trip to Iceland with my sister. That might sound crazy, but the flight is under 6 hours, about the same amount of time it takes for me to get to California from New York. I had never been to Iceland, so off I went.

Something I had to wrap my head around in visiting Iceland was that unlike many other places I’ve visited, I wasn’t there to be wowed by the city, by the architecture, not even necessarily the history (although the Viking history is an interesting one), I was there for the natural beauty, the eerie landscape. I can safely say I have never been any place like it.

Cold, yes. Unpleasant, no. The air is so clear, the waters so blue. There was definitely a lot of bundling up and a light investment in an Icelandic wool hat to keep my head warm, but other than that the cold wasn’t difficult to deal with. There’s a saying that goes, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait 5 minutes.” I had one hour stretches where I experienced snow, sunshine, rain, wind, cold, warm. God, what a strange place.

Our first day was spent in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland and where about 2/3 of the Icelandic population of 300,000 reside. It was a charming fishing village with colorful buildings, shops selling homemade goods, a Beatles coverband playing from a balcony, teenagers running around dressed in animal costumes, signs about knitting elves. After taking a couple of pictures from the top of the Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church and wandering the streets, we stopped into a traditional Icelandic cafe and dove headfirst into the strange cuisine.

Cafe Loki: Rye Bread Ice Cream, Fish on Rye bread, and Hakarl (fermented shark.)

Cafe Loki: Rye Bread Ice Cream, Fish on Rye bread, and Hakarl (fermented shark.)

Before leaving for Iceland, my co-worker kept telling me about a delicacy he had heard about called Hakarl. It’s shark meat that’s left to ferment for a couple of months. I told him there was no way I was going to eat that. But I found myself sitting in a cafe in Iceland, seeing it cheaply on a menu, and not coming up with a good reason to not try it.

Weird. Plain weird. I don’t know how to begin to describe the taste. Salty, fishy, fruity, chewy, juicy. Weird. Not bad. Not good. Weird. Then, I swallowed. The aftertaste that followed was horrific. The strong scent of ammonia that follows these shark bites around invaded my mouth and sinus area. All I could do was devour the Rye Bread Ice Cream (delicious!) and try to bury the horrible taste. I later learned that it is tradition to take a shot of Brennivin (Icelandic Schnapps) after eating the shark to avoid the experience I had.

At the base of Eyjafjallajokull in my new Icelandic wool hat!

At the base of Eyjafjallajokull in my new Icelandic wool hat.

Our second day was a scheduled “Volcano Tour/Glacier Walk.” I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I typically don’t go on tours when I travel, but this turned out to be a highlight of the trip. An Icelandic guide came and got us in a massive land rover and drove us along the south coast. The countryside is pristine. Iceland uses something like 99% renewable resources, and they are environmentally aware. The island itself is volcanic, so the ground everywhere is black from ash and covered in a light layer of moss which is about all the vegetation that can grow there. The snow melt from the top of these volcanic mountains creates stunning waterfalls. Our tour included driving through riverbeds, hiking to the base of Eyjafjallajokull (that volcano that erupted a couple of years ago and ruined air travel in Europe for weeks), trekking behind waterfalls, hiking along glaciers, and eating lamb stew at a small Icelandic hotel. Of all the natural beauty we saw, it was once again the ocean that took my breath away. The long, black beaches and the crashing waves, the clouds rolling in with occasional sunlight breaking through, the loud roar of the ocean, the strong winds nearly knocking us over. Pictures don’t quite do it justice.

The ashy beaches of Iceland.

The ashy beaches of Iceland.

The following day I had arranged to go horseback riding on the famous Icelandic horse. Again, I was taken out to the Southern coast to a ranch that leases out wild Icelandic horses. The horses are rather small but sturdy. There was a German woman in my group who was rather large, but her horse didn’t seem to mind at all. The horses have a thick coat of fur and come in 100 different shades. Because I was a more experienced rider I was given a wilder horse named Rouðka (meaning “the red”). She was beautiful, and I was in love with her in an instant. Once we began the ride, she became feisty, pulling at her reins, wanting to break away from the horses in our group. Looking out over the endless Icelandic countryside I wanted the same thing, and she could tell. Once or twice, when we were trotting along in the special Icelandic horse gait called a tolt, I loosened the reins and allowed her to run ahead of everyone else. Our guides would warn me to pull her back and stay with the group, I played dumb, shrugging, blaming it on my Rouðka.

Bad picture of me, glamor shot or Rouðka,

Bad picture of me, glamor shot or Rouðka,

Our final day, on the advice of a friend, we stopped at the Blue Lagoon on the way to the airport. My guidebook put it well in calling the Blue Lagoon, the Eiffel Tower of Iceland, with all the good and bad connotations such a comparison elicits. It’s a touristy thing to do, but it is also the most iconic part of the country. I was expecting it to be so-so as most iconic things turn out to be. But instead it was relaxing, refreshing, beautiful and the exact thing we needed before getting back on a plane. Walking through the milky blue waters of the lagoon is soothing with different temperatures every few steps. There are sandy areas to sit, a bar to enjoy a beer at, masseuses, and silica mud to put on your face for a mini-facial. Although there were plenty of tourists around, the lagoon has so much steam rising from it that it was difficult to see a couple of feet ahead, not to mention that the swimming area is huge. It was easy to be alone and enjoy it without crowds. We stayed in until we were completely pruned.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon

A quick weekend trip to Iceland is exactly what I needed, to get away from work stress and personal stress. There’s nothing like traveling to a weird little nook of the world to reset yourself.

 

  • Travel Notes:
  • Skyr- Icelandic yogurt. It’s a little sour, but fluffy and satisfying. I ate it with berries every morning I was there. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I’ve been back.
  • Expensive Food- While the American dollar is currently strong against the Icelandic Koruna, I found that eating out was crazy expensive. People warned me about this, but I shrugged, figuring I was from New York. But $40-$50 for a meal for one person is typical in Iceland. Most everything else is relatively inexpensive.
  • Tours- While I don’t like tours in general, the ones in Iceland were spectacular. The guides are all friendly locals. It felt more like hanging with a local as opposed to paying for a tour. Plus, Icelanders LOVE their country and want to brag and talk about it with you every chance they get.
  • Liquor- Drink Viking beer, skip the Brennivin. It tastes like bad Vodka.
  • Layers- Holy shit, it’s cold. Then it’s warm. Then you think you’re going to freeze to death. Bring layers.
  • Conditioner- Don’t let your hair touch the water in the Blue Lagoon! Condition the shit out of it before you go in, and condition it even more when you get out. Also, don’t get any water in your eyes. I did and temporarily blinded myself and ruined a new pair of contacts.

 

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8 Responses to “Iceland”

  1. Danguole May 3, 2013 at 7:51 pm #

    They have skyr at Whole Foods! I ate it as a wee young child. It’s good stuff.

    • Chrissy May 3, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

      My sister texted me as soon as she got back that she found it at her Whole Foods in Boston!

  2. Susan May 3, 2013 at 11:51 pm #

    Wonderfully informative!

  3. Jacob May 6, 2013 at 10:26 am #

    Great post!

  4. queerf0x May 6, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

    OMG, Chrissy — I’m so envious!!! I LOVE Iceland (and Icelandic ponies, lol!) and I’m so happy for you that you got to go see it! So awesome! …and can you tell this post made me really really excited…? haha.

    • Chrissy May 6, 2013 at 4:07 pm #

      I thought of you while I was there, because other Americans there said the volcanic landscape reminded them of Hawaii. One day, I’ll visit. One day!!

      • queerf0x May 6, 2013 at 4:19 pm #

        Just keep a lookout for good deals on tickets — they come up pretty often! ^_^

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. 27 Before 27: Eat Pork Belly | Chrissy's Blog - July 17, 2013

    […] was delicious. It just wasn’t as exotic or exciting as some of my other culinary adventures (fermented shark head.) Turns out pork belly is just a type of pork. Bacon is typically cut from pork belly. It’s […]

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