Land of Fire & Ice: Iceland, Part 1

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Iceland, 2013, Blue Lagoon & Leaving Iceland, 27

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

Thursday, November 26, 2013 Thanksgiving Day

In place of my Thanksgiving turkey dinner, I’m going to Iceland! But 1st I have to get there. It is unseasonably cold in Atlanta, colder than Reykjavik. When I left my house at 6am it was 25 degrees F. I was bundled up and with no wind I actually got too warm on the one mile walk to MARTA. The train was on time, only about half full at 6:45a. No issues getting to Hartsville Jackson, but it really is the world’s busiest airport, especially during the holidays. It is literally a sea of people and the security lines are very long.

Apparently clean living pays off, at least occasionally. Without realizing it, I was put on a TSA pre-check list, which means I bypassed the longest lines and had a mini screening. Even got to keep my shoes on. I’m both happy and concerned. Somewhere my security file says “Mostly Harmless.” Happy and disappointed at the same time.

At the plane I was one of the last to board this Delta flight. No room for my carry on, so forced to check my bag. But it was at baggage claim as promised and there was no charge. I land at Newark airport and “technically” my tour with Gate 1 begins here. I had 6 hours to kill before the flight, but I’d left lots of time in case of delays. If I’d flown the day before 6 hours wouldn’t have been enough with all the bad weather delays.

Barbara, my traveling companion, is much better looking than this, but it's the best photo I have of her.
Barbara, my traveling companion, is much better looking than this, but it’s the best photo I have of her.

Icelandic Air is a small business and it took requests of three different airport employees before I found someone who recognized the airline and could send me in the direction of their check in counter. They, it’s a big airport! It was shortly after noon and they finally opened around 4p. My bag was over 11 kilos, which is one kilo over the airline’s limit and I was forced to check it. (obviously I should have checked this detail!) If I’d known that I’d be forced to check my bag on both flights going to my destination, I would have carried an additional bag or at least used the 2″ expansion zipper on my current bag. With the cold weather and bulky clothing, I had a very difficult time packing. I met 2 ladies from Arizona who are also on our tour. Since they are staying at a different hotel and are not signed up for any of the day tours, not sure I’ll see them (I didn’t). Most of my friends and family always think I travel so much, but these women have really seen the world and I am in awe of their stories. Makes me feel like a novice.

Clothing and food is expensive here. The exchange rate was roughly 120 kroners to 1 US dollar.
Clothing and food is expensive here. The exchange rate was roughly 120 kroners to 1 US dollar.

 

Barbara found me at the gate. So good to see her again. We have only met once, during a trip to China, and I was very pleased when she contacted me about this trip. There was a significant savings to share a room. She and I spent a day touring Shanghai and though I know it will mean compromises, I think she will be a good travel companion.

The flight was packed. I slept. Barbara read. It is only 4.5 hours to Reykjavik and a five hour time difference. We leave at 8p and arrive at 5:30am, Friday morning. Passport control is one simple question and a flip through my passport to find an open page to stamp (which is getting more difficult all the time). Baggage claim is simple and I never see a customs officer. The ATM is empty so we will have to find one once we get into town. We find our bus easily. It’s decent weather with clear skies and temperatures about 40F. It is almost an hour drive into the city, which is asleep and dark.

The Radisson Blu, Hotel 1919, Great location in the Harbor area.
The Radisson Blu, Hotel 1919, Great location in the Harbor area.

Our hotel, Radissen Blu 1919 does not have a room for us at this early hour of 7: 15a but they will hold our bags. We grab hats and scarves and go walking. It is “tourist central” near the harbor docks with lots of shops and restaurants. There are small cruise ships in port. It isn’t really cold, above freezing, and no sign of snow. This is a good way to orient yourself, before the traffic gets thick. Unfortunately, I am beginning to feel the effects of a cold and must face the fact that I could be sick the entire vacation.

After our walk, we have a big breakfast in the hotel, first rate too. Everyone speaks excellent English as well as Danish and Icelandic. We visit the Hallgrimskirkja Church, the tallest church in Iceland at 240 feet high. We take the elevator 8 stories then walk up two more to the highest view for photos. The inside of this Lutheran church is austere. My photos are at daybreak, but that’s roughly 10:30am this time of the year. According to the literature, the Tower is meant to resemble a volcanic formation, I think it beautiful, but don’t really see the resemblance to a volcano. It is lovely standing against the pink sky. I like the simple clean lines and we are told the pipe organ and choir is well known. I have a hard time with the idea of a state run church however.

Lutheran church, Reykjavik
Lutheran church, Reykjavik
The view from the top of the Lutheran church, dawn in Reykjavik,
The view from the top of the Lutheran church, dawn in Reykjavik,
The Radisson lobby. They are very "artsy" in Iceland and mostly I don't get it.
The Radisson lobby. They are very “artsy” in Iceland and mostly I don’t get it.

We take a short nap on the couch in the hotel lobby while we waited for to get in our room. By noon we pull our bags to the second floor. Barbara has had no sleep and she collapsed while I took a shower. But I feel a cold coming on and join her with a quick nap.

We go to the Settlement Museum, located on the edge of the square. It’s built around the remains of a longhouse from around 900AD, discovered in 2001. It’s believed to be one of the earliest buildings in Iceland, the original home of Reykjavik. The home was a large sod and turf house, so they must have been dark, dirty and damp most of the time. It seems everyone lived together and there are few interior walls for privacy. Not the best museum display I’ve ever seen, but it was interesting. It does give an interesting look at the people who lived here. While we think of them as Vikings, this group were just farmers. There was no one living here so they did not move here for trade or as a raiding party. There were few large, native mammals and the trees were short and scrubby, but there was grass for sheep.

The area was decorated for Christmas. Among the few cheap things in Iceland: heating and electricity. Both are geothermal.
The area was decorated for Christmas. Among the few cheap things in Iceland: heating and electricity. Both are geothermal.

We had a pizza on the square for a late lunch that was not very good, but everyone was nice and the place clean.

We do a bit of walking and window shopping. But we couldn’t stay awake and went back to the room. We skipped dinner and slept.

 Saturday

I woke several times overnight. This is a bar district and it’s a weekend. I could hear drunken people yelling on the street which woke me every hour or so. We were told by the hotel that it was graduation parties. But later are told that most bars don’t get going until 1am and this is simply a “hopping” place on weekends. People drink at home before they go out since alcohol (and everything else) is so expensive. There is lots of live music at the bars and restaurants here, but it mostly started around 10p during the week and 11p on weekends.

It was a great breakfast, but for $27 is should be. Food is expensive here.
It was a great breakfast, but for $27 is should be. Food is expensive here.

Despite the noise, I feel fairly refreshed in the morning. I dressed and woke Barbara before I left for breakfast at 6:45. I am the first guest in the dining room and the waiters try too hard to help me at the buffet. Such a big spread for breakfast, much better than I’ve come to expect at a hotel breakfast. I always try to have yogurt when offered. I’ve read that it’s the best way to get the local

Table with cod liver oil. Call me chicken, but I took the pills.
Table with cod liver oil. Call me chicken, but I took the pills.

gut flora and stave off any intestinal difficulties. In the center of the dining room is a table of cod liver oil with tiny shot glasses. The waiter assures me it will keep me “strong and healthy..oh but the taste…” he rolls his eyes and pushes the bottle of pills toward me. “This will be better.”  I’m sure he is right. I still feel a cold coming on and take the pills and drink juice.

We stayed in the Harbor area and saw fishing boats, small cruise ships and even a whaler.  They only hunt for the Minke whale, which they say is abundant.
We stayed in the Harbor area and saw fishing boats, small cruise ships and even a whaler. They only hunt for the Minke whale, which they say is abundant.

I go for a short walk to check the weather which Barbara eats. It will rain more today. The streets are already wet but it is unseasonably warm with high temps of about 41F. I find an ATM and am suddenly flush with local cash, the Icelandic Kronor. Foreign money always feels like Monopoly money, not quite real. Our tour pick up is 8:30a.

 

City tour of Reykjavik.

Selina is our tour guide. The tour office is a block from our hotel, though they picked us up in a large bus. Random sites and facts learned during the tour:

I took this photo because it was the worst looking building I saw the entire stay in Iceland. The standard of living seems high, buildings and roads are in good repair, and everything was very clean with little trash or graffiti,
I took this photo because it was the worst looking building I saw the entire stay in Iceland. The standard of living seems high, buildings and roads are in good repair, and everything was very clean with little trash or graffiti,

Reykjavik is the Capital of Iceland, a city of 120,000 (200,000 in greater area). It is the Northernmost capital city in the world. They are quite proud of their Viking heritage. Oldest building is located in the in the central market and harbor area (where our hotel is) and was once a prison. Now it is the presidents’s office. Which seems about right to our guide. Selena was not happy with economic situation of her country. They practically had an economic collapse, almost bankrupt in 2008.

In 874AD the first settler came, he was a farmer who lived in a turf home and had many slaves. Others followed. There is a statue to this man in the city square.

Harpa concert hall. It's supposed to be a conference center, but the hotel is still a hole in the ground. It's lit up colorfully at night, though.
Harpa concert hall. It’s supposed to be a conference center, but the hotel is still a hole in the ground. It’s lit up colorfully at night, though.

 

 

 

 

 

Lots of theatre and concerts here, considered a city focused on the arts. There are statues everywhere and a few statue parks devoted to a single artist. The Harpa Concert hall opened in May. It is too expensive and Selena says she doesn’t think they can afford it. It was supposed to have been a conference center too, but the hotel is still just a large hole on the ground. It is an unusual building with oddly shapped windows which are lit at night.

We pass the weekend flea market (which we enter later). The Old harbor is large enough for smaller cruise ships and fishing boats. You can go whale watching any time of year. It is best in summer, but minke and humpback whales can always be seen in the waters near here. One of the boats is pointed out as a whale fishing boats. You can have whale meat in Reykjavik. Minke whale is served in a few cafés and this is the only type of whale that is fished since they are not endangered.

Inside the Lutheran, state run church.
Inside the Lutheran, state run church.

Religion:  2% Catholic (mostly Polish workers). The Church of state is Lutheran and about 85% of the country considers themselves Lutheran.

The Mayor of Reykjavik is a professional comedian, a member of the Best Party. Apparently he ran as a joke because of the economy and was elected! He has announced he will not run for reelection. In the 1980’s Iceland was the first country to elect a female leader and she served for 16 years.

National Gallery is located across from the city lake. This lake freezes only about twice a year (which it did later in the week) Our guide tells us that a small section of the water is kept open using hot water (pumped from below) for the geese. National museum. Old burial grounds. 1911, Iceland University was founded. In 1940 Iceland was occupied by British, who built a small airport. Larger one built by US a year later.

This statue of Leif Erikson was a gift in 1930 from the United States on the 1000th anniversary of the "discovery" of North America. Since he didn't come from Iceland and people were already living there, I don't understand the statue.
This statue of Leif Erikson was a gift in 1930 from the United States on the 1000th anniversary of the “discovery” of North America. Since he didn’t come from Iceland and people were already living there, I don’t understand the statue.

We stop at the Lutheran church again (where we were yesterday). There is a Leif Erikson statue outside, a gift of US in 1930 to celebrate the 1000 year anniversary of finding America (Vinland). The pews have backs that switch so that you can face either direction. The art exhibit is called the Flora of weeds. It is just pots on a table under bright grow lights. The pots contain random samples of earth with grass, dandelions and weeds. This is not by type of art. The church Tower is 73 meters high and until recently was highest building in Iceland.

Reykjavik means smoking bay and was called this from the earliest days because of the steam vents. There is a year round enclosed swimming pool nearby with hot tubs on roof. It’s all thermally heated water.

We stop at a small white building on the harbor. It seems nothing special but this is where Gorbachev and Regan met near the end of the Cold War. We take a short photo stop here. One advantage for a tour guide this time of year is that if you say “five minute stop” it’s is only that. We are right on the water with nothing to break the wind and pelting rain. Glad I did not bother to style my hair. The wind does it for me.

This is the building where Regan and Gorbachev met near the end of the Cold war.
This is the building where Regan and Gorbachev met near the end of the Cold war.
It's a very colorful city.
It’s a very colorful city.

Liquor stores (the guide called them Booze stores) located outside the city are often open only 2 hours on Fridays for locals. Two thirds of the people live in the Reykjavik metro area. The rest of the people live in towns of less than 3,000.

Our guide says that this was a very difficult growing season. The parks and gardens were not as nice because didn’t really have a summer this past year. She blames it on climate change. We pass a large soccer field, but that’s not the sporting attraction. Handball is the big sport here. Several outdoor statues parks, plus statues in all the major squares and even along the shoreline. I’ve never seen so many statues.

 

The steam is coming from a pipe building, a hook up point for hot water, which is the major way to heat buildings.
The steam is coming from a pipe building, a hook up point for hot water, which is the major way to heat buildings.

We see small buildings with a steaming pipe along the streets. These are literally called Pipe buildings and they are used for heating houses. Plumbers connect homes via these buildings. There are two main geothermal systems: steam used to turn generators to produce electricity and hot water for heating homes and drinking/bathing water, mostly using a heat exchanger. It is expensive to live in this country, but electricity and heating is relatively inexpensive. There is no way to export this type of energy, but companies are building ore smelting sites here to take advantage of the low electric prices. There are 3 plants where bauxite ore is refined into aluminum and this provides much needed jobs. Along with refining, tourism, fishing (and specifically whaling), these industries are the biggest employers. Whaling was quite a controversial addition. It was approved by a president literally in the last hours of his term as he was leaving office. According to our guide they harvest the minke whale, which are abundant. There was an outcry at the time saying that tourists would no longer come here, but the guide says that it is the tourists that are eating the whale. Later, I give it a try.

This was taken at about 3p. In early December there's only about 5.5 hrs of daylight. Notice the volcanic rocks. Part of the scenery looks like a moonscape.
This was taken at about 3p. In early December there’s only about 5.5 hrs of daylight. Notice the volcanic rocks. Part of the scenery looks like a moonscape.

As we drive out of town I notice the open fields on either side of the road. The earth is dark, rocky but not in a way I’m familiar with. This is volcanic rock and it looks difficult to farm. I see very few trees and the area seems windswept. The weather has been bad all day with gale force wind and pelting rain.

Old church in front graveyard. Some areas can't have burials since the ground is hot at 5 feet under. Oresidential home behind.
Old church in front graveyard. Some areas can’t have burials since the ground is hot at 5 feet under. Oresidential home behind.

We pass the presidential farm. There are no walls or fences. No guards. Every day the president walks his sheepdog at the same time, completely unguarded. Protesters are rare, but during bad weather last year, the president’s wife invited the protesters in for hot chocolate.

This is the Land of fairies and hidden folk. Parents used to say that elves and fairies were dressed colorfully in reds and blues, but now the ones dressed colorfully are tourists. The “hidden folk” live among the volcanic rocks, often inside the rock in another dimension. Outside of city they are less likely to move boulders during a construction project. Estimated that over 80% of population still believes in elves, fairies, trolls and other hidden folk.

Entrance to the Black Pearl is between two huge water storage tanks.
Entrance to the Black Pearl is between two huge water storage tanks.

Shortly after sunrise, we go to our last stop: The Black Perl, or Petlan. It is a 4 story observation tower on high spot overlooking the city. It has art exhibit, a revolving restaurant on top and a Viking museum in the basement. The tower is surrounded by huge water tanks. This is our final stop before going back to the city center.

 

The view from atop the Black Pearl
The view from atop the Black Pearl
Inside is a fountain, styled like a geyser.
Inside is a fountain, styled like a geyser.
A man preparing our taste of "shark cheese". We also saw horse meat for sale.
A man preparing our taste of “shark cheese”. We also saw horse meat for sale.

Back in the city center we are released from our tour around noon. We check out the weekend flea market. Barbara buys a hat and I get earrings for my mother with real black volcanic rock and red coral. We try fermented shark which surprisingly tastes like pork fat. It has hung in the open air for 6-9 months and I find it interesting that wild animals leave it alone for so long. It’s cut into small cubes. They call is “shark cheese” which is better than the name I’ve heard: fermented or rotten shark. It wasn’t as bad as I expected, but I can cross this doubtful delicacy off my list for the rest of my life. We also walk to the Harpa building.

Harpa
Harpa

I am battling a cold and stopped at a grocery for vitamin C. Groceries are unable to sell aspirin or pain relievers of any kind. It appears they can’t sell any of our common over the counter drugs except at a “dispensing chemist’s” shop!

I fell asleep for a lengthy nap, partially to stave off this cold and partially to prepare for our Northern Lights Mystery tour. The mystery is where and whether we will find the northern lights. It starts at 8p and because we have a long drive out of the city we won’t be back until 1 or 2a. We drive east along the southern coast searching for a break in the cloud cover. We are in Bus 4 with guide Linda and driver Lulah.

There is no rain and outside the city we can see stars, even the Milky Way. There are 10 buses which is way too many. Most of these are visitors whose tours canceled last night and the night before. In the end it is a wasted effort. Our guide keeps saying that she sees the lights but they need to develop. I see nothing and wish we’d have quite two hours earlier. We make several fruitless stops. Most of what’s pointed out just looks like clouds to me. It’s cold and windy. All the lights are turned out and you can’t see your feet to walk safely. Often we just pulled over onto the side of the road. The ground is uneven and there are cars. The chance of injury is high and I’m surprised no one falls. The liability insurance would have been too high to do this in the US. We didn’t even sign a waiver!

Over looking the harbor during a busy shopping day.
Over looking the harbor during a busy shopping day.

Sites/facts on the tour:

We see the Imagined Peace Tower, a beam of light, put in place 8 years ago by Yoko Ono in memory of John Lenin.

The guide says there are four conditions to see the northern lights:

  • Darkness
  • No clouds
  • Solar activity
  • Luck

The northern lights are actually collisions between charged particles from the sun as they collide with the earth’s atmosphere. This usually happens at 90 to 130 km above the earth on average, but it can be much higher. Most common colors are green, but red, yellow, blue and purple also occur, depending on height, and chemical composition of the atmosphere.

This is what Greela and her husband look like. They are the parents of the 13 Yule Lads, the Icelandic version of Santas,
This is what Greela and her husband look like. They are the parents of the 13 Yule Lads, the Icelandic version of Santas,

Iceland has 13 Santa Clauses that live among the elves with their mother and father. The mother is Greela and she has a huge nose to sniff out naughty children. When she finds them she puts them in a big sack and then cooks them and eats them! The 13 are usually called the Yule Lads and they come to your home one a night and leave goodies in the children’s shoes, which are left on the windowsill. Bad children get a rotten potato.

People in families do not have the same last name here. Your last name is the first name of your father with the word “son” or “daughter” after. This is a holdover from the time of the Vikings. Everyone goes by first names, even teachers and the president. There is no Miss or Mister. Iceland has been so isolated that everyone is related, at least 7th cousins. There is a detailed family history online now to help people. This past April a new phone app was released and two people who are interested in dating now just activate the app and touch phones to find how closely they are related.

There is "art" everywhere.
There is “art” everywhere.

Bobby Fisher, the chess champion, is buried outside of Reykjavik. He was not allowed to return to the US and Iceland was one I the few places to agree to take him in. He had been here for the chess match with USSR.

We finally make a stop at about 11pm at a gas station for a bathroom. They had one bathroom for 5 busses so the line was well out the door. I paid for a hot chocolate from the machine but it didn’t work and I couldn’t get anywhere near the register to get my money back. There were so many people in the gas station that I just gave up and stood outside. It would not feel so cold if you could stay out of the wind. This is turning into a terrible tour.

I enjoy shops with interesting names, like this one.
I enjoy shops with interesting names, like this one.

The small town we are in passing has several greenhouses, lit up even this late. They are located on a steam vent that heats all the greenhouses and homes in this community.

The population has many magical beliefs. Trolls are popular, and it’s believed that if the sunlight hits them they turn to stone. Many people believe they can see the form of a troll in the large volcanic rocks. Elves live in another dimension and only those born with “the gift” can see them. Elves are believed to be the children of Adam and Eve. When God came to see the children, they were dirty and Adam and Eve were ashamed and hide them. This made God angry, so she made them elves. The hidden folk are said to be protective of their homes, which are large rocks and boulders. Recently in a Reykjavik suburb a large boulder was left in place and the road moved around it because it was believed to be the home of elves.

Reykjavik
Reykjavik

Lowest crime rate of any country. No handguns can be purchased here, only hunting rifles. Police don’t carry guns. We pass the one and only maximum security prison, which (we are told) is similar to a 4 star hotel. It is certainly lite up at night. Each prisoner has a private room, cooking privileges, flat screen TV, they wear their own clothes. They can work for pay or go to school at no charge. There is a 2 year waiting list to get in! Murder is rare, but it does happen once every 6-10 years. The usual violent crime involves alcohol and a knife. Three wks. ago all the prisoners had their computer privileges removed because inmates went on Facebook and made threats.

Though our guide keeps saying that we are waiting for the lights to “intensify,” I don’t think I’ve seen a single spark. So far it’s just and overly crowded bus ride that’s running quite late. It is 1am and we have a short brandy as a nightcap and head to bed about 1:30a. In the end we saw no northern lights. It is an early morning tomorrow.

Continue with Part 2 here.

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3

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Beth

I'm a professional vagabond. I quit my cubical job in January 2014. Since then, I've hiked the Appalachian Trail, The Camino, and taught English in Vietnam, Turkey, Russia, Spain and Mexico. I'm exploring the world.

5 thoughts on “Land of Fire & Ice: Iceland, Part 1”

  1. I am sorry you didn’t get to see the Northern Lights. As for fermented shark, you are a braver soul than I. I don’t think I could work up the courage to try it.

    1. Before I left, I had decided I would NEVER try the shark. But there it was and…well….I did it. Wasn’t as bad as expected. If the smell had been really bad, I don’t know if I could have done it.

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