Monday, January 4, 2016

Icelandic Dreams

View of Reykjavík from Hallgrímskirkja
I become obsessed, most often, with ideas. Rarely, any longer, does my attention cling to people. Rather, I think of something and I must do it. Whether the thought involves visiting a certain city or cooking a specific dish, an idea will stay with me until I make something of it.

In the depression of grad school, I became obsessed with the idea of visiting Iceland. Life was bleak in Western Massachusetts. I looked at the map and thought, "Ah, Iceland, it’s not that far away. After a two-hour drive to Boston, it’s only a 4.5 hour flight. I can be in another country in 6.5 hours! I can go for the weekend!" This is the kind of fantastical thinking required to endure grad school. The meditations were necessary. Of course, I didn’t have the budget to go to Iceland. But, I never let go of the idea.

Six years later, I visited Iceland. This past summer, I was eager to be anywhere but Philadelphia. Thus, I planned a week-long road trip around Iceland with my mother. Before Instagram, the attraction of Iceland was based upon the uniqueness of visiting another country. After Instagram, I felt as though I had seen it all. I knew the sights and mysterious landscape. I had a lengthy list of stops.

Day 1: After arriving, we rented a car and stayed in Reykjavík for one night. Reykjavík is a tiny city. 80% of Iceland’s 350,000 people live in the capital city. You can easily traverse the city on foot. After parking near our AirBnb, we went right to breakfast at the Laundromat. The “Breakfast American” had everything I’ve ever wanted for breakfast on one plate: cheese? Skyrr? Fruit? Eggs?! Bread?! More bread? 
Laundromat Cafe in Reykjavík
Reykjavík Roasters

After, we hit the required spots in the city: Hallgrímskirkja, Harpa, and the Sun Voyager. I stopped at Reykjavík Roasters for a cappuccino. This coffee shop is in my top three (Revolver in Vancouver and Houndstooth in Austin are the other two). I’m sure it’s something about the milk; all of their produce/dairy/meat is untainted by chemicals, pesticides, etc. 

I took a quick run along the coast while my mother took a nap. I was determined to avoid jet lag; a run plus taking blue-green algae seems to do the trick. We had dinner at Grillmarkaðurinn, a farm-to-table Icelandic restaurant. I wasn’t worried about eating in Iceland; actually, I can’t think of a country I would be worried about eating in... Their tasting portions are not tiny, American tasting portions. Their dishes were much larger and I was stuffed. It was excellent.
Chocolate Croissant, Bakarí Sandholt in Reykjavík 

Day 2:
The next day we left Reykjavík early, after a stop at Bakkari Sandholt. As I do in a US bakery, I ordered a bunch of different pastries, with little idea as to what they are, by pointing at them in the case. We ate them in the car on the way to the Blue Lagoon. Every pastry I had in Iceland was better than every pastry I’ve had in the US (minus a recent trip to Tartine Bakery). The flakiness! I will never eat another croissant in Philadelphia. 

The Blue Lagoon was very relaxing (besides the shower attendants who make you shower, naked, before and after). I can see why busses go directly there from the airport. I planned to stop at the lagoon early in the day, as I knew it would become very crowded. We left as giant tour busses arrived.

After this, we did the standard Golden Circle stops: Þingvellir, Gullfoss waterfall, and Geysir/Strokkur geysers. This might be blasphemous, but I’d recommend skipping the Golden Circle. This is the most popular tourbus route and the sights do not compare to the rest of the country: maybe go north to the Snæfellsnes peninsula or inland north, if your time is limited. 

I planned the roadtrip counter-clockwise, so we drove southeast. We stopped at two more waterfalls (Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss); they were far better than the one above.
Langostine at Pakkhús Restaurant in Höfn

I couldn’t find a place to stay in Vík or Höfn, but we needed to cover that ground on the first day. We drove to the top of a small peninsula, Dyrhólaey, to view the black sand beaches of Vík. Then we continued to Höfn for dinner. The fresh langostine was delicious. Then we backtracked to our less than clean, farmhouse AirBnB. There is something very eerie about the combination of tractor noises after midnight and never-ending sunlight. 

Day 3: We continued to the east to Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell in Vatnajökull National Park. I was most excited to see this black waterfall. We took a 30-minute hike down to the waterfall. Yet, the sky was overcast, the lighting drab, and the black stone appeared gray. But, the drive to Svartifoss was lovely. Fields of lupine and exit glaciers were visible. After the hike, we drove to Jökulsárlón to see the exit glacier lagoon. It was freezing. Weather-wise, I think we were very lucky. But, it is always windy in Iceland and it may rain at any time. Jökulsárlón was the coldest moment of the trip and I barely made it out to take pictures. We continued to drive for hours in the Eastern Fjords. It was the most lovely and slow-going drive of the trip: carless, misty and ominous. We stayed the tiny, tiny town of Stöðvarfjörður: population 200.

Day 4: We worked our way out of the Eastern Fjords with a stop in the tiny fishing village of Seyðisfjörður: population 665. The drive to the town was over a rather large snow-covered mountain (thanks mom for doing the scary driving that your thirty-one year-old daughter can't handle). I wanted to see a tiny, quaint blue church. Nothing was open in the town; we continued to the North with a stop at Víti Crater, Dettifoss and Selfoss waterfalls, and mudpots in Mývatn. It was a dramatic day of driving, the sights ranged from the gray, foggy fjords to the red clay landscape of Mars. I was very excited about stopping at the Game of Thrones cave from Season 2. You can climb down into the cave a little bit. You have to avoid all the other people climbing about, but it’s pretty cool to imagine how they filmed the scene in such a tiny space.

Farmhouse Lunch at Vogafjós Cowshed Cafe
Then we stopped for lunch on a farm at the Cowshed Café. I ate a "farm lunch." Each ingredient was from the farm: smoked mozzarella, fresh mozzarella, cottage cheese, raw lamb, smoked salmon, and pickled salmon with Hver (Bread cooked underground). All of the cheeses were great and the raw lamb was actually delicious. I’ve never eaten raw lamb before; there is almost no similarity to lamb we eat in America. The taste was very much like beef tartar. Finally, we stopped at a nearby waterfall, Goðafoss. I received a text message from a friend in Philly, while at the waterfall. Iceland is very well connected. Their internet and cell coverage makes the US seem like a land of 3G. I tried to keep my phone in airplane most of the time. I found it bizarre to be at a beautiful waterfall in Iceland while texting about events in Philly.

Day 5: We continued west from Laugar to Akureki, the capital of the North. We stopped at Safnasafnið, an outsider art museum. It was tiny, but had great stuff. Next we went to the world’s Northernmost Botanical Gardens in Akureki. I’m always amazed to see flowers blooming at different times, in different places. Columbines were blooming in July. Next, we went into the church, Akureyrarkirkja, which was designed by the same architect as Hallgrímskirkja

Coffee and cakes at Tea Room Áskaffi in Glaumbær
After Akureki, we drove to the Catholic church in Hólar where the last Catholic bishop in Iceland was beheaded in 1550. Then we stopped at Tea Room Áskaffi in Glaumbær, a cafe next to traditional straw houses. The coffee and tiny cakes were delicious. We continued to the Western Fjords to our AirBnB. We were not near anywhere to eat, so we had gas station food. Let me say, this was the best gas station food I’ve eaten. Smoked salmon with hardboiled egg and vegetables for 9.00 USD. Awesome. I wish we had more time to explore the Western Fjords, but distance has little relationship to drive time. 90 miles can take hours. And, the roads are not paved. I found it a miracle that we did not end up with flat tire.
Cinnamon Chocolate pastry from Bakery Nesbrauð in Stykkishólmur
Day 6: We drove around the Snæfellsnes peninsula. This beautiful area might have seemed more beautiful to me if I had seen it first. After days of unbelievable sights, one after another, this hilly peninsula seemed simply okay. It’s famous for the skateboarding scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. We did stop at Bakery Nesbrauð in Stykkishólmur for an excellent chocolate/cinnamon bun.

We arrived back in Reykjavík with time for me to return to Reykjavík Roasters. Then we had an early dinner at Iceland Bar where I could eat Hakarl, fermented shark. Anthony Bourdain, famously, called this the most disgusting food he’s ever put in his mouth. This was not the most disgusting food I’ve ever eaten. Imagine cheese that’s about a month old, with the texture of a raw, meaty fish. There was nothing wrong with the shark; it wasn’t unpleasant. The bar also had the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten: light and fluffy with excellent fries. Afterwards, even though I was pretty full, we stopped for ice cream at Paradis. This ice cream didn’t have the harder texture of a standard American ice cream. Rather it was instantly drippy and soft. Still good.

Hákarl (fermented shark) and 
dried cod at Íslenski Barinn in Reykjavík
Ice cream at Paradis in Reykjavík

In the end, I didn’t buy a sweater or a weird troll figurine. I’m rather selective in my purchases. I did buy a thimble; I’ve had a collection since I was ten. Before the trip, I made a long-considered, yet impulsive, purchase of a DSLR camera. I used to be into B&W and developing my own photos. I decided to make the jump to a real camera for Iceland. The thought of taking pictures of this fantastical place with an iPhone seemed ridiculous. While I purchased nothing more than a thimble, I have the photos and the tastes. After many years of obsession, this dream came to pass.

Inside Harpa
Blue Lagoon
Exit glacier and Lupine in South Iceland
Skógafoss in the South

Lighthouse in Dyrhólaey

Glacier Lagoon in Jökulsárlón
Driving in the Eastern Fjords.
Driving in the North towards Mývatn
Mud pots and steam vents in Mývatn

Ubiquitous sheep.

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