Category Iceland

Iceland’s South Shore

We added a short stopover in Iceland on our way home from England. It was an opportunity to revisit favorites, see some new things, and, even better, break up the flights. Because, you know, even though I can travel thousands of miles across continents in a single day I can still find a way to complain about it. I suppose I’m inured to the marvel. Overseas travel used to involve a high risk of scurvy, a disease that ravaged the mind and body, but I’m complaining because sitting the whole way from London to Seattle might make my butt ache slightly. 

When I say “short stopover”, I mean it: we had one evening, one morning, and one full day sandwiched in between. On our evening, we went back to Grillmarkaðurinn, because how could we not? I had the most amazing rack of lamb, perfectly pink and luscious, which came with three small ramekins of yogurt, rhubarb sauce, and crushed nuts for self-saucing and experimentation and a side of crispy kale and garlic fried potatoes. I also stuffed myself on crusty bread with Icelandic butter and black lava salt and a side of fresh hot corn with the same accoutrements, and surprise, I again had no room for dessert. Jason’s meal had three kinds of fish, and he said each one raised his bar for how good fish could be. On our morning, we went back to the blue lagoon until we were driven inside by a violent hailstorm. All of those people surging out of the water while shrieking and flailing  looked like a scene from Jaws

On our full day, we went on tour to Iceland’s south shore. We were picked up early from the hotel and shuttled to the large bus terminal from which I could see the beautiful pink sunrise, and, on the hill, the place at which I’d made reservations that evening: The Pearl, where we’d eat in a glass dome under the stars with a 360 degree view. I had some time to contemplate my dinner plans and doze on the bus while we waited for some late arrivals. This late start unfortunately impacted our day as we had to blast past our first two stops, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, with assurances that we’d hit them on the way back.

Seljalandsfoss-adjacent

Skógafoss

We made a bathroom break/snack/gift shop only stop at the LAVA centre in Hvolsvöllur, but our first official activity stop was at Sólheimajökull glacier. One of my favorite teachers described his awe upon laying eyes on a glacier for the first time: “It was Tidy Bowl* blue!” This refreshingly unpretentious and product placement laden description had the kind of staying power it took to stick in my memory for decades, much like how Tidy Bowl lasts, flush after flush.  After a short hike from the parking lot, I finally got my first good look at a glacier, and it did indeed glow a gentle electric blue. We were not allowed to walk right up to the glacier but even at a distance it was immense. Less immense every year, however: it recedes the length of an Olympic size swimming pool annually.

I think this is the best photo to help understand scale–look at those tiny people in the lower right, off to hike on the glacier itself.

Our next stop was the farthest from Reykjavík we’d travel on the trip, the village of Vík í Mýrdal. As its southernmost coastal village, Vík enjoys the reputation of the warmest place in Iceland, a balmy one or two degrees warmer than average. Despite this heat wave, Vík’s population of 318 has yet to embrace shorts. To be fair, I can’t say I would have embraced them, either, as I spent the entirety of this visit in the puffy, noisy grip of cheap snowpants and still felt cold. Despite its small population, Vík offers a robust amount of services for travelers, as owing to its location along the ring road, it’s one of very few places in the area to fuel one’s vehicle and purchase food, which makes it a very different kind of “must-stop” on a road trip. Our tour group was given an hour and a half in which to eat, shop, and sightsee at our leisure, if anything done on a ninety minute timer can be said to be done at leisure. Jason and I ate at the Ice Cave restaurant, which is essentially a cafeteria attached to a huge gift shop and a grocery store. I finally got some Icelandic meat soup! It was…soup. Meat, potatoes, vegetables, water. It wasn’t objectionable in any way, but it had two main things going for it that had nothing to do with the flavor: it was extremely hot and therefore warming, and, unlike just about everything else on the menu, it’s ready to go off the line so you don’t have to use precious sightseeing time waiting twenty minutes for your mediocre burger. After Jason finished his mediocre burger, we hit the restroom and hustled down to the black sand beach, giving the gift shop a pass because however huge, it was still stocked with the same stuff we saw at every other single shop in Iceland. What did they even sell before China stitched its first stuffed puffin?

But a black sand beach…I’d never seen one of those before. The sand at Vík, due to its origins as basaltic lava, has the inky depth of rich topsoil, or, learning the lesson from that former teacher and using a metaphor that’ll stick with you, it’s a beach of Oreo cookie crumbs. To be more exacting, the black sand mingled with the pure white snow and ocean foam looked strikingly like the dirt cakes my brother requested for his birthday several years in a row (always served in a flower pot). 

I didn’t learn my lesson from last time about the perils of buying cheap snowpants online and gleefully abandoned this second terrible pair in the hotel. 

At the appointed time, we all loaded back on the bus and the driver hauled us up the hill and back down the other side to Reynisfjara Beach. Reynisfjara Beach is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful in Iceland, with its striking basalt columns and stretch of black sand, but it’s also one of Iceland’s most dangerous, with sneaker waves and an extremely strong undertow, a one-two punch that will knock a person’s legs out from underneath them and then drag them to sea. Although warning signs have been posted and tour guides stress the importance of not turning one’s back to the ocean, people still are caught unawares and several have died. Even when we visited, there were people toying about at the water’s edge, because, I guess, do you even have a life if you don’t take the risk of having it violently ripped away from you by the freezing ocean? 

The basalt columns in the ocean at Reynisfjara Beach are known as Reynisdrangar. Icelandic legend tells of two trolls who decided to drag a ship to shore in the night, but the task took longer than they anticipated (darn that strong undertow!) and they were caught by the sun and subsequently turned to stone. Also basalt, the step pyramid on land is called Hálsanef and it looks like the entrance to the lair of the troll king if only the cleft in the rock went deeper.  Scores of birds wheel about the top of Hálsanef–we were here at the wrong time of year, but I hear it’s very popular with puffins. It’s funny, these two black sand beaches are so close to one another, but one of them feels like an epic scene straight from a movie, and one of them feels exactly like what it is–a stretch of beach behind a parking lot. 

The sands at Reynisfjara Beach were rockier than their brethren at Vík í Mýrdal, with large areas covered in smooth dark grey stones. I don’t know what came over us, but both Jason and I coveted these stones, and even though we never do this, we agreed that we could each pick one to take home. I know, it’s a bad practice: if everyone did this, or even if a lot of people did this it would dramatically change the characteristic of every wild place for the worse. I knew it was wrong as I picked up the stone and closed my hand around it and slipped it into my pocket. But that stone had a grip on me. It was somehow The Perfect Stone, so smooth, so dark, so symmetrical, satisfying to look at and hold. Precious.

 

After our petty thievery, it was time to board the bus and head back to the waterfalls we’d blasted by on our way in. We made it to Skógafoss just as the sun was starting to set–you may recognize Skógafoss from Thor: The Dark World or a handful of other films. When we arrived, we were informed that we wouldn’t have time to go up to the viewing platform unless we were comfortable with the idea of running both up and down the entire set of stairs. Anyone who reads this blog or knows me or could make an educated guess about my general fitness level based on the sheer amount of Lord of the Rings references knows that running isn’t my bag. Me running up and down those entire stairs at full tilt is exactly equally as likely to happen as it is for Chris Hemsworth to have shown up just then, in his Thor costume, solely for the purpose of carrying me to the top.

Sheep!

We inched toward Skógafoss: every inch of terrain near the waterfall’s “splash zone” was coated in slick ice, and the ground itself was covered in irregular large rocks, which were also slick with ice. It was like trying to walk on bubble wrap made of ice, and while my feet tried to slip out from under me a few times, thankfully I kept my balance. Ultimately, I didn’t want to get very close to Skógafoss–the icy mist pelting me from a distance was plenty, I didn’t need to soak my jacket through, sit on a cold bus for a while, and then walk to and from our dinner reservations when we got back to Reykjavík in my still-wet jacket.

Speaking of not wanting to soak my jacket, at our final stop, Seljalandsfoss, visitors can walk behind the waterfall itself, which sounds like a great idea in the summer. When I visited, someone would have needed to credibly convince me that a puppy needed my help to get me back there, so either all puppies in the area were safe and accounted for or no one there realized that was part of my skillset. Either way, I ventured nowhere near the waterfall because I was already cold to my bones. The little heating packets in my pocket felt more like holding the memory of warmth–a pale ghost that just reminded me how cold I was, the LaCroix of heat.

 

We boarded the bus for the last time, and it was then that things took a turn for the worse. A horrible storm kicked up and an accident on the road forced us to a halt. I can no longer recall how long we sat there, but the time for our dinner reservations came and went and we had yet to arrive back in Reykjavík–and we were still lucky, because the snowstorm got bad enough that the roads were closed behind us, and in that instance, we would have had to backtrack to the nearest town and try to get lodgings for the night. Moreover, it was looking increasingly likely that the storm was going to stick around for a while, which kicked off my anxiety about our flight potentially being canceled. 

Then it struck me. In my run-up to my previous visit to Iceland, I did some research into their story culture. In addition to Norse mythology (because Vikings), Icelanders have a strong storytelling tradition about elves. In a 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. Plenty of people have mocked them for it, regardless of whether or not that survey accurately reflects the population in 2018, but Icelanders’ belief in elves isn’t nearly as pervasive as the nearly 80% of Americans who believe in the existence of angels and I don’t think that little tidbit makes it into the guidebooks for the land of the free and the home of the brave. Let’s at least be consistent in our treatment of invisible people! The book that I read about the elves, The Little Book of the Hidden People by Alda Sigmundsdóttir stated unequivocally that Icelanders do not believe in elves, and that the stories of the elves (or hidden people) were to help the people of Iceland deal with their extremely difficult circumstances. For example, back in the day when most Icelanders were peasants working the land for someone else, they were not allowed to marry until they had achieved significant financial resources, which wasn’t really a thing because nobody had a track record of paying peasants well–so if a woman were to somehow become pregnant outside of wedlock, well, a hidden person did it. Or, more grimly, if a child was to go missing in the harsh Icelandic weather, parents could console themselves with the idea that a hidden person had led their child off to the land of the hidden people, a prosperous place that would care for them for the rest of their lives, because the alternative was too horrible to consider.

Regardless of my day to day belief in the existence of elves, in my mind at the time I was convinced that our earlier stone thievery royally pissed off an elf since they are known to be touchy about stones and things they view as their property. When we got back to Reykjavík, Jason and I each took our perfect stones out of our pockets, sincerely apologized to the elves, and put them on the ground. And to be certain, this is just an anecdote with no scientific value whatsoever…but within 20 minutes of setting down those stones, the storm that was supposed to last for days completely cleared up. We missed our dinner reservations but made our flight and I got to eat another pepperoni taco sandwich, so all in all, I’d say the elves let me off easy, perhaps taking into account that it was a first-time offense.

 

 

*I’m fully aware how it’s really spelled.

This didn’t deserve its own post: Iceland Edition

When I take a trip somewhere, if I don’t do a day-by-day recounting, there’s usually a bunch of tidbits left over that I either couldn’t write more than a few sentences about or don’t have any photos for or would drag out the series far beyond what any human could be expected to tolerate.  All combined, however, they make for something a little more substantial, so here’s yet another one, this time about Iceland.

For my stay in Reykjavik, I was booked at the Best Western. I don’t have any particular distaste for the Best Western chain in general–they’re serviceable if not particularly fancy, the sort of place that you maybe wouldn’t be too surprised to see duct tape patching a hole in the carpet. Frankly, I don’t need for my hotel room to be fancy, it’s the place that I crash out for a few hours in between doing more exciting things, unless I get sick and end up spending much more time there than anticipated. Free WiFi is nice, free breakfast is another good perk (even if I rarely avail myself of the option). This Best Western changed my opinion about Best Westerns. I wish they were ALL like this one. For one, the room was super nice. For two, the tub was super nice. For three, free breakfast is a wonderful thing when food is as expensive as it is in Iceland. For four, their toilet flushed with the force of a spectacular waterfall. For five, they have a kind of duvet I’ve never seen before, one that has the power to save marriages all over the world: split down the middle so no one needs to stab a covers hog in the middle of the night.

best wester reykjavik

tub

amazing comforter

The one area in which I was a little disappointed was Icelandic TV. I don’t know if my hotel had awful reception or what, but I am very much not into the club scene (as I am old, uncool, and disinclined to pay for bottle service) so if I wanted to veg a bit after everything closes at night (earlier than I would have expected), my options were limited. The news channel was frozen on that same frame for my entire visit.

One morning, I got a bug up my butt about going to see the sun voyager sculpture at dawn. I either severely overestimated the distance or underestimated my walking speed and how much I would hustle in the cold, because I got there a good thirty to forty minutes before sunrise. It was so cold, with strong winds whipping icy water up out of the harbor to sting our faces. I spent a good portion of that time huddling in a bus shelter, skittering out whenever I saw something that might be a bus coming so I wouldn’t inconvenience a driver by making him stop when he didn’t have to. A few other people with cameras showed up just before dawn. We were all red-cheeked and hopeful for a spectacular sunrise.  What we got was not the most spectacular one in the history of time (too much cloud cover that seemed like it was moving out of the way but didn’t), but it was pretty damn good, and worth the effort.

sun voyager

Afterward, we made our way to the Harpa Concert hall to check it out and escape the cold a bit while waiting for businesses to start opening.

harpa

harpa interior

jason harpa

mellzah harpa

harpa interior ceiling

I don’t know if this is the case everywhere in Iceland, but all of the public restrooms I used were stellar. Super private stalls, impeccably clean, all with those magnificent waterfall toilets, very unlike, say, the terrifying and filthy half-door stalls at Pike Place Market where you can make shame-filled eye contact with someone outside the stall while wiping, which I would only use if my death by exploding bladder was imminent and even then I would think twice.

public restroom

I like that construction at the harbor is so permanent that they’ve put it on their maps.

permanently under construction

I have mentioned before that food is really, really expensive in Iceland. One night, sans reservations, we wedged our way in at the bar at Public House. Our meal started off with a shot and a beer, and then we each got a selection of small plates, four each. I got something called the “taste of iceland”, and the two courses I remember were a tiny licorice puffin salad and some lamb stuffed inside a doughnut, the former which was a little weird even for a licorice lover like myself and the later being quite delicious. We both walked out still hungry, and our bill was over $230 USD. Oh, but that wasn’t all. While we were at the bar, a local came in, complaining of the cold, and grabbed each of our hands to show how cold she was. I, thinking this was an opportunity to connect, offered her my already-warmed hot hands packet in addition to a fresh unopened packet to use later, which she was very, very excited about, showing them off to everyone who worked at the restaurant. So far so good, right? Then she started in on a seriously intense speech about how people in Iceland are going to the harbor and killing themselves, repeating to us over and over again “Don’t do it. Don’t do it. Don’t do it.” It was deeply unsettling and I can still hear her voice in my head when I think about it. I’m trying not to think about it.

public house

public house puffin salad

public house reindeer donut

Baejarins beztu pylsur, on the other hand, is refreshingly cheap, and apparently the must-try Iceland place. It’s a hot dog stand that’s been open since the 1930s, and pretty much everyone stops there to eat eina með öllu (one with everything: ketchup, mustard, remoulade, raw onions, and crunchy fried onions). The lamb-based hot dog is delicious, and all that onion makes your breath truly remarkable for the better part of the afternoon. Frankly I don’t care what the hot dogs are actually made of to make them so inexpensive, whether it’s ground up rats with wooly lamb coats or what, I was just thrilled not to spend $60+ on a meal (another reason I loaded up at free breakfast every morning).

beztu

I’m not sure what Texas-style pizza is but I do wish I had stopped in to find out. Then again, maybe not as their food is decribed as “intestinal terrorism”.

texas pizza

Because I am a mature adult, I spent some time singing “a few times I’ve been around that track/ so it’s not just gonna happen like that/ because I ain’t no hlölla bátar / I ain’t no hlölla bátar

aint no hlolla batar

If they don’t give you a gun with which to shoot your selection on the menu, I don’t even know what to say.

american style

At the hotel, I saw an advertisement for a fish spa, the establishment where a bunch of hungry fish eat all of the gross dead skin off of your feet. This was something I’ve been keen to try for a while, and it’s been banned in the US (as there’s no way to sterilize the fish) so this was my first opportunity and I’d be damned if I was going to pass it up. While it’s true you can’t sterilize the fish, they do have you clean your feet well before you plop them in a tank, washing them and then squeezing on some kind of antiseptic. It wasn’t the super ticklish sensation I expected, more of a pins-and-needles type feeling, except when they squeezed between my toes to get at some particularly tasty foot crud–that was ticklish. My feet were baby soft afterward though that probably has a lot more to do with soaking them in water for an hour and then layering on some thick lotion than the fish themselves. I wouldn’t say that where the fish could hear, though, as I wouldn’t want to crush their tiny spirits.

iceland fish spa

fish spa

I liked how bright many of the houses were, it made the city feel quite cheerful.

  colorful houses

drekkin

street

single gloves speed dating  

This one little pond was absolutely stuffed to the gills with birds one evening. My favorite was obviously this little short-necked dude strutting around like he owned the place.

sunset bird pond   neckless bird

I never did get to try Icelandic meat soup, but not for lack of trying. Everywhere I went, every time I tried to order it, they were out. I’m not certain Icelandic meat soup actually exists.

eat meee  

And that wraps up Iceland! The stuff I didn’t talk about really doesn’t deserve its own post.            

The Blue Lagoon Iceland

blue lagoon entrance

blue lagoon walkway

oooh pretty

people are terrible at following the rules

blue lagoon mist

those are some relaxed humans

About an hour outside of Reykjavik is the most delightful wastewater one could ever splash around in: The Blue Lagoon. No, really, as much as they try to sell it to you as a natural feature hewn by the gods for their personal relaxation, now available to mortals for the very first time, the water that you swim in was first used to create geothermal energy at the Svartsengi plant down the street. Not that it’s a bad thing–the water isn’t by any means contaminated, and it’s not akin to floating in a nuclear cooling tank–it’s just a little less all-natural than they’d have you believe. What is au natural is your ass before you enter the lagoon as they require you to bathe in the nude beforehand. Everyone is given the option of waiting in a rather sizeable line for a private stall, or you can do like I did and say “fuck it, I don’t have any parts they’ve never seen before” and strip down at one of the public stalls. The odds are good that no one was anxiously awaiting an eyeful of my fishbelly oatmeal thighs and even if they were, one eyeful would be plenty. This now marks three continents that I’ve flapped my nude bits around in, which makes for a weird bucket list item, but hey, work with what you’re given, right? I’m coming for you, Antarctica. Last. Brrr.

After I finished traumatizing the other guests, it was time to don my bathing suit and head outside. When I made my reservations, I balked at the extra 15 euro charge for the use of a robe and slippers. When I stepped out into the cold air, robeless, I couldn’t believe how unnecessarily cheap Past Mellzah was in terms of the discomfort Current Mellzah was feeling. The discomfort was momentary, though, and realistically, that robe would have only been useful for the ten steps between the door and the place you hang up the robes and towels, so it really would have been a waste of money and just another set of items to keep track of. Once I hopped into the water, it was allllll good. Water temperatures are in the 100 degree Fahrenheit range, though it’s possible to find hotter and cooler pockets. As someone who personally enjoys parboiling myself in the bath, the water temperature was ideal. I smeared my face with their silica mask and moved off into the mists, where it was easier to relax and pretend I had the place more to myself, away from the shouting bros proclaiming “NO WAY, BRO! YEAH BRO!” and their screeching girlfriends and everyone carrying a selfie stick or a cell phone packaged in a ziploc bag into the water. Seriously? I try to have a “you do you” attitude, but I couldn’t help but judge these people a little (a lot). Is it more important for people to see you relaxing on instagram than to actually relax? If so, your priorities are skewed. No, but for reals, how jealous will people be when they see me under this waterfall? Do my arms look fat? Take another one.

When I was able to ignore the fact that other people exist (GOSH), the lagoon was wonderful. Sipping a cold drink while steam rose up around me and snow dusted down on my hair was extraordinary, one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had. Everything surrounding it, from the cattle call lines to get in and the crowded locker rooms to the constant surcharges and upselling was a little less so. For convenience and a last bit of unwinding before a flight, it’s a treat, but I was surprised that even on a weekday morning, the atmosphere can be more “vegas pool” than “relaxing spa”. Especially when someone drops their phone in the water.

Hallgrímskirkja Reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja can be seen from almost anywhere in Reykjavík, and if you’re new to the city, is an excellent landmark around which to orient yourself. It’s also an ideal place from which to see the city–for a reasonable fee, you can take an elevator to the top (well, almost to the top, there are a few flights of stairs involved) and get a 360° view of Reykjavík. I tried to go as close to sunrise as possible for the beautiful morning light and also because I wouldn’t have to plan my day around it the way I would if I aimed for sunset. What am I doing in the afternoon? Lots. What am I doing at the asscrack of dawn? Generally nothing. Plus, you know, if I’m going to be struck dead for crossing a church threshold, better to get it over with early in the day so my pile of smoldering ashes can make the evening news.

clock view

The elevator goes to the clock level, and I couldn’t help but peep through the grimy windows to get a sense of what I was in for once I climbed the remaining stairs. What I glimpsed was enough to get me to hop the stairs two at a time to get to the level with an unobstructed view.

sunrise

reykjavik harbor sunrise

reykjavik harbor

Dang, Reykjavík, you’re beautiful. And Hallgrímskirkja, you’re a looker, too, inside and out. While I was back on the ground floor, I kept trying to get a peep of the stained glass that I knew was there, but all I could see was a sliver from around the enormous organ. So I sidled over to the elevator ticket seller and asked if there was any way I could go up to the floor where I could see the stained glass better. She led me to a side stair, and BAM: stained glass. And a replica of the church rendered in Lego!

organ

lego replica     stained glass

 

stained glass detail

I made sure to drop some extra cash in their donation basket on the way out as thanks for both the peep at the glass and also for the lack of smiting. My future making stupid jokes on the internet is, for now, secure.
 

Long ago in days of yore, it all began with a god named Thor: The Saga Museum

 

saga museum exterior

saga museum statue

Well, a bit after the time of Thor, actually. The Icelandic Sagas are narratives based on the 9th, 10th, and early 11th centuries (essentially the Viking age), about the struggles that early settlers faced in the harsh climate. The Saga Museum has rendered these histories in silicone to give you a visual representation of their great heroes, infamous villains, and everyone’s favorite, the black plague. I took the audio tour, but to be honest, I did not retain much information at all–I was distracted by the couple behind me who started the audio tour something like five minutes after me, which should have kept us a consistent distance apart, but they were up my butt almost immediately and stayed that way for the entire museum. I tried skipping ahead, I tried waiting long after the audio portion of an area had ended to let them pass, but they stuck to me like my backside was giving them oxygen. It was really distracting. If this were a professional travel blog, the writer in question would probably not post about the museum at all so as not to pass along disinformation. This is not a professional travel blog however, so instead I am going to make all the jokes I couldn’t make because of the aforementioned butt-clingers. At least until I get to the really important part. You’ll know it when you see it.

 no i am not busy at all please tell me about your band“No, I am not busy at all, please tell me about your band.”

i swear to god i will do it if you mention politics one more time at this brunch marci“I swear to god I will do it if you mention politics one more time at this brunch, Marci.”

yes hello did someone mention they needed the talents of a man or a dog“Hey did I hear boobs popping out of a shirt? Just checking”

snorriI do remember that this guy’s name is Snorri, and based on that information and also his haircut, I am going to assume that he’s one of the dwarves who stayed home.

i changed my mind lets play rock paper scissors instead“Oooh, I forgot I left the oven on, let’s continue this battle later byeeee”

no really i am very interested in this book of your vacation photos“No really, I am very interested in your dream journal. I’m not staring off into space, I’m, uh…contemplating the significance. Yeah.”

someone is having a bad day“Hey I changed my mind I am definitely not a witch, it was just a phase. It was just a phase!”

saga museum“This arranged marriage is working out great. Super great. Sure, there was that incident when I found him on AdultVikingFriendFinder but other than that, it’s been really, really, really great.”

bellows“Please tell me more about how hard that level in your video game is. Go on.”

your caption hereYOUR CAPTION HERE

areyouatrueviking

After the, uh, learning was done, it was time to determine whether or not we were true vikings, a process which involved putting on costumes and flailing around weapons wildly. It’s possible that I didn’t need to make fierce battle screams, but at the same time, I wanted to make it clear that I was in no way struggling with that twenty pound shield so as to better ascertain TRUE VIKING status. I think it’s safe for me to put it on my resume now. TRUE VIKING. But in which section? Accomplishments? School? Hobbies? All of them?

just a couple of vikings

viking

true viking

bear battle

hee hee fighting a bearThe background for this epic bear fight is pretty lame, though.

thatsbetter

Aaah, that’s better.

 

Give me one of every animal you have: Grillmarkadurinn Reykjavik

 

grillmarkadurinn exterior

grillmarkadurinn interior

fish and chips

thorsmork

It’s no secret that before I go somewhere that involves a flight, I do exhaustive research. Not because I’m a monster opposed to any and all spontaneity, but because I want to maximize my time. I may also be a monster opposed to any and all spontaneity, but I’ll leave that determination for a therapist. My obsessive planning reduces the chances that I’ll show up on a museum’s doorstep on the one day of the week they’re closed, that I’ll eat dinner at a crummy restaurant when there’s one I would have enjoyed more just down the street. First, if any friends have been to that area, I’ll pump them for personal recommendations. On this trip, my friend Shannon was an invaluable resource–she’s the one who warned me it gets much colder at night and that I needed to invest in some waterproof fleece-lined pants. It’s not her fault that I didn’t wear them…once. I did, however, keep them strapped to my ass the rest of the time, grateful for her suggestion. I also scour travel guides, blogs, and anywhere else that I think their tastes may align with my own–because that’s important, too. I don’t want to get recommendations from the same people in my local facebook community who would wholeheartedly recommend papa murphy’s as the best pizza place in the entire city: just because any pizza is generally pretty good (because it’s pizza), if I want something remarkable, I want a recommendation from someone who has also eaten a lot of pizza and knows what’s remarkable. I don’t want a recommendation from an unbearable douchebag. One place that has always knocked it out of the park for me recommendation-wise are the makeupalley boards, which may seem weird at first, but once you consider that it’s mostly women, generally in my age range, not afraid to try things and share their opinions and it starts to make more sense that I’d use it as a resource. One of the places that came highly recommended was Grillmarkadurinn.

We happened to be in the area around lunchtime, and stopped in. While I couldn’t have been more delighted with my fish and chips and my twenty-three dollar (USD!) fancy-pants drink, a Þórsmörk, the thing I really wanted to try on their menu, they don’t serve at lunch: a horse fillet. Hear me out: in addition to being beautiful and fun to ride and what have you, I have heard that they are also delicious. When I was a horse-crazy kid, I received a lot of books about horses for birthdays and other holidays, and checked out many more from the library in my quest to absorb all things horse. I vividly remember that one of them spoke about a European (French?) ruler (king? general? fancypants aristocrat? This was over twenty years ago, cut me some slack) who loved the taste of horseflesh so much that he would literally bathe in horse broth, eating floating chunks of meat as it pleased him. This is something that made quite an impression on young Mellzah. Not enough to be able to find any evidence of it actually being a thing, no matter how many internet searches I did for the story and for the book in question, probably borking up my amazon recommendations forever and ending up on some kind of list of potential internet weirdos. Be that as it may, whether the story is true or not (probably not), I was bound and determined to try horse if given the opportunity, so I made reservations for dinner at lunch.

When I came back that evening, some of the staff recognized me and gave me a queer look. “Weren’t you just here for lunch?” Yes, yes I was. Don’t judge me, love me.

The restaurant was much more crowded at dinner, so I didn’t feel comfortable whipping out a camera or a phone to take photos of the meal. I’m not one of those bloggers who feels no shame and stands right up on their chair to get that perfect snap, wafting my butt in a neighboring table’s face space so I can make the internet jealous of my meal while it slowly gets cold and less palatable as I arrange and rearrange the table. That will never be me. So help me god, if you’re out with me and I do that, do the right thing and pull the chair out from under me while coldly asking if I had mistaken the establishment for a jungle gym. Be the hero the world deserves.

Ahem. So given that I’d eaten lunch not terribly long before, I elected to split the horse filet with Jason, so I’d have a bit of room left in case I felt the need to try any more weird licorice candy on the way back to the hotel (that is a need that I generally always have in the presence of licorice) and so I’d also have room for puffin and langoustine sliders, another special they don’t serve at lunch. In my post-Iceland research (looking futilely for horse soup bath verification), I learned that most people consider horse to be a leaner, drier meat. I don’t know if Grillmarkadurinn lards their horse fillets (filly-ets), but my meal was juicy, flavorful, and rivaled some of the better steaks I’ve eaten–between this horse steak and the imported A5 kobe I tried (the gold beef standard), I’d actually pick the horse, as A5 is almost unpleasantly rich. I’m not going to start bathing in it, though.

Who would have thought a whale could be so heavy? Whales of Iceland

whale skeleton

It took some doing to find the Whales of Iceland building–it looks like a nondescript warehouse in a street filled with nondescript warehouses. Compounding things, it had some confusing signage on the outside and it didn’t look open. “Nuts to that, I’m cold and I’m going in,” I declared. Thankfully, what could have been my last words before I ended up in Icelandic prison turned out instead to just be yet another bit of complaining before ending up exactly where I meant to be, which is often the case. My most uttered sentence may well be “Where in the hell is–oh, there it is.”

Whales of Iceland has to be in a warehouse-it’s the only sort of building large enough to contain its displays: life size whale replicas. It’s hard to fathom the size of some of Earth’s largest inhabitants, hidden beneath the waves as they are, until you’re standing beside them. It’s still hard to comprehend, even then. At some point, my brain just kind of shuts down in a loop of “That’s really, really, really, really big. Like, really, really, really, really, really big.” Like, rilly.

For example, when I went whale watching, the boat had to maintain a pretty solid distance from the whales (I’m not complaining, I’m just saying), so it was difficult to get a sense of scale. At Whales of Iceland, you can definitely get an idea as to which species you could conceivably ride should you find yourself in the ocean with the power to command whales. You could definitely get an even better idea of rideability if Whales of Iceland would go ahead and fit all the whales with saddles, just saying.

orcaRideable.

baby orcaNot rideable.

orca smileRideable, and very amenable to being ridden. A++

narwhal frontUseful as a mount and a weapon.

narwhal

pilot whalesRideable.

belugaNot rideable.

actual right whaleThe SUV of whale mounts, eminently rideable.

right whale

baleen smileRideable.

blue whaleRideable, the double decker bus of whale mounts.

humpback whale

iceland whalesRideable, rideable.

sperm whaleRideable but may turn on you.

whale at whales of icelandIs this joke getting old? It’s getting old. Would still ride, though.

whale scale

whale

whales of iceland

interactive whale display

In addition to wandering around, pretending all of the underwater carnage you’d cause as Poseiden, lord of the sea and rider of whales, there is a educational display where you could learn about whale anatomy and physiology–the display itself would change as you learned about different functions, animating or playing video to illustrate the point that was being made. They also have a “swimming with whales” VR experience, though I had to specially ask for it at the cafe. My best guess is that having to check it out makes it less likely that the headset will, uh, walk away with a guest. Each entrance also comes with free coffee or tea, so you can warm up, sit, and contemplate your place in nature.

drinking coffee among the whales

Or flip through the guestbook, where people have drawn some remarkably detailed whales.

guestbook

guestbookdrawing

whale eye

…and vulvas. “Whale eye,”  indeed. THAR SHE BLOWS!

Ahem.

Once you’ve absorbed as much whale as you’re physically able, you exit through the gift shop (of course). In addition to the t-shirts, magnets, and keychains, they also sold what I believe can only be described as an orca whale that has been stretched on a torture rack and turned into a whale-shaped whale whip, for all of your whale riding needs. Seriously, guys, make with the saddles. Think of the photo ops!

loooooooong orca

whale of a time

Spotted on the Roadside: A Monument to an Online Empire

 

eve online monument iceland

eve online monument

eve online player monument

j monument

player names

tile lifting

Once upon a time, about a decade ago, there was a young man in the greater Seattle area who seriously considered dropping out of school to play Eve Online, whiling away his days in his parents’ basement, eating cheetos, and engaging in virtual space warfare and corporate espionage. I think it’s a pretty safe bet that if that young man had followed through with this course of action, there’s no way he would have ever visited this monument to the game and its players that was dedicated in 2014 and we wouldn’t be married. His name would have been on the monument, though, so I guess all decisions come with sacrifices. The End.

Spotted in the old Reykjavik harbor, Iceland.

 

Iceland’s Golden Circle

I staggered back to the hotel around three am after looking for the northern lights and slept like the dead…for three hours until my alarm went off to rouse me for the golden circle tour. Almost every single part of me wanted to stay in that bed, save for the part that wanted to shatter the alarm clock with a rock first and then go back to bed. What kind of sadist tour agency books an early morning tour immediately after a late night tour? I mean, granted, that’s probably something I would have done anyway if I was in charge of scheduling as I subscribe to the “cram as much as humanly possible into one trip, sleep is for the dead” school of thought…at least until that alarm goes off in the stark cold morning and I’m the coziest hedgehog that ever curled into a blanket burrow and then I think “sleep is for me, sleep is for meeeeeee.” Either way, I always get up, looking forlornly at the bed, and this sullen state of mind usually continues until I get some food in me, also known as the Pre-Food Grumps™.

Iceland’s “golden circle” is a ~200 mile loop that comprises a number of tourist destinations, primarily Geysir, Gullfoss, and Þingvellir. Reykjavik Excursions must be familiar with the Pre-Food Grumps™, as the first stop on their golden circle tour is Friðheimar, which you will note is not on the list of three things I mentioned above. Friðheimar is known for growing tomatoes year round in greenhouses under artificial lighting. As you may or may not know, Iceland is a young land, geologically speaking. It’s still developing, and is very volcanically active. Natural forces bring Earth’s heat close to the surface, which allows the country to use inexpensive and clean geothermal energy to heat and light their homes…and to power these sorts of greenhouses to grow crops. Through the use of these greenhouses, they’re actually able to grow local bananas, a fruit you would never expect to find in their climate.

On the way to Friðheimar, our tour guide explained a bit more about food production in Iceland. Now, I am not mocking her at all–she was knowledgeable, well-versed in English, and I liked her quite a bit–but occasionally she would come up with a turn of phrase that just boggled the mind. For instance, when talking about geothermal activity in Iceland, she went on to explain that in some areas, the ground is too hot for people to bury their dead and that thinking about that problem was something that “put a little smile” on her face. Yes,  I often get a little smile when thinking about the problems of others, but generally that’s not something one discusses among company one doesn’t know particularly well. As we pulled into the Friðheimar parking lot, she told us that these were the best tomatoes we would ever eat, and they were grown completely without the use of “shamicles”. You would be wrong if you thought that “shamicles” has not worked its way into my regular vocabulary, and not always as a substitute for the word “chemicals”. As an example, the homeopathic natural remedy section at Whole Foods is FULL of shamicles.

tomatoes

so many tomatoes

marys menu

At Friðheimar, there was signage everywhere proclaiming that NOW is the best time of the day for a bloody mary. Jason is particularly suggestible when it comes to this sort of thing (I may or may not have tricked him into marrying me by leaving photos of wedding bands laying around) and this is how he ended up with the world’s finest bloody mary at 9am. At 9:01am, he learned that he doesn’t actually like bloody marys. I, too, am not a fan of the bloody mary,  though I briefly considered the “healthy mary” (green tomato, lime, honey and ginger, served chilled with sparkling water) or the “happy mary” (the healthy mary, but with added gin, hence the happiness). If you really want to get your motor revving bright and early, you can also elect to purchase a hollowed out tomato filled with schnapps. It was a little early for me to be hitting the sauce, particularly at the start of an all-day tour, so I passed. However, I remain intrigued by their dessert menu, which includes a green tomato and apple pie, tomato ice cream, and cheesecake with a green tomato cinnamon jam–so much so that I’m considering importing some of their products to try at my leisure.

bloody mary

Our next stop was Geysir, the periodically spouting hot spring from which the English word “geyser” also spouted. One of our fellow bus riders was so anxious to witness the phenomenon than he stood up and began grabbing his bags before the bus came to a stop, which prompted our tour guide to scold him with “You must listen to me or you will fall down and hurt yourself very badly!” to which Jason followed up with a whisper in my ear “and then I’ll get a little smile on my face!” which caused me to erupt in raucous laughter, like a different (more obnoxious) sort of geyser.

After we deboarded, we carefully made our way to the hot springs, as the constant water droplets cause the pathways to turn into sheets of ice. Nearby trees were crusted with ice solely on their geyser-facing side. The surrounding landscape was almost otherworldly, with smoking holes bubbling gases into the air, and every few minutes, the heavy sigh of Strokkur pluming boiling water into the sky. Geysir itself erupts infrequently.

In case the wonder of nature wears off, thankfully, there’s an adjacent gift shop with some really upscale items, like fur hats that I couldn’t stop petting until I worked out the price conversion and gagged a little…and then petted them some more because there was no way they were coming home with me. There were also some items that looked suspiciously like walrus pajamas, from the Danny Devito line for well-dressed walruses.

geysir hot springs

alien landscape

punching the sky

coated tree

walrus suits

After we’d had enough of water shooting up, it was time to watch water go down at Gullfoss. Gullfoss (or “golden falls”) is so named because of the way the waterfall lights up golden when the light strikes it just so, and has nothing at all to do with another phrase you may have heard, golden showers. I didn’t personally see the water glitter golden (it could have been the wrong time of day, too many clouds, or some other factor), but it is a gorgeous falls nonetheless. The popular legend about Gullfoss is that foreign interests wanted to turn it into a hydroelectric plant in the early 1900s, but that the daughter of the farmer who had leased the land, Sigriður Tómasdóttir, was so opposed that she fought a legal battle to prevent this from happening, walking to Reykjavik barefoot more than once, bleeding due to the rocky terrain, and she even threatened to throw herself into the falls themselves should she not prevail in court. Some sources say this story is true, others claim it’s false,  and since I’m not a research librarian and from all available evidence, you mostly read this blog out of pity for me and for jokes about butts, not accurate historical information, all I’ll say is thank you for your pity, and butts butts butts.

jason gullfoss

gullfoss 1

dont walk

gullfoss

gullfoss water

gullfoss pano

gullfoss iceland

 gullfoss flare

Next to Gullfoss is another gift shop, in case you found yourself with a desperate need of a keychain between your last stop and this one. I took a quick pass through (because you know me, I like stuff) and it was basically the same stuff I’d seen everywhere else on the trip. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, per se, I guess I just would have expected a little more variation from place to place–things that spoke more specifically to the exact place at which one is standing (“Sigriður Tómasdóttir threw herself into Gullfoss and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”, etc) but that just might be my American consumerism talking.

After reboarding the bus, the tour guide told us that we were coming up to her favorite part of the tour–the part where she stops talking for an hour, so if we’d like to nap and not miss anything, now would be the time. It seems all I needed was for someone to reassure me that I wouldn’t miss anything, as I fell asleep in seconds, drool running down my chin in a poor imitation of the waterfall. By the time the tour guide started talking again, I was feeling a bit more refreshed and a bit less like a member of the walking dead, saliva nonwithstanding. We had arrived at Þingvellir national park, the place where the north american and eurasian tectonic plates meet. You can actually see the continental drift between the plates, and walk along the Almannagjá fault, which is what we did. Other tours are available to go snorkeling between the plates in the Silfra fissure in the Þingvallavatn lake, which supposedly has some of the most crystal clear water in the world. I’m not the world’s most avid snorkeler, so that’s not a claim that I can personally verify, electing to spend my time doing something other than panicking quietly in a drysuit.

boulder cliff edges

cliff

walking path

rocky cliffs  pathway    j bundled             t walkway

church    

running water

pano

As we were leaving the park, the weather turned nasty. The skies grew dark, rain lashed at the side of the bus, and someone driving behind the bus felt the driver was taking things a bit too cautiously, laying on the horn the entire time he passed us. We saw him a few miles up the road being dug out of a snowdrift.

…It put a little smile on my face.

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Hunting for the Aurora Borealis in Iceland

One of the things in Iceland I was most hopeful I’d see was the northern lights. The flight and hotel package included a northern lights tour courtesy Reykjavik Excusions, which was smartly booked for the evening of my arrival–I say smartly because if you are unlucky in your evening’s attempt, the tour company will take you out again and again at no additional charge until you’re successful or you run out of time. Even so, I tried my best not to have my hopes too high: there’s no guarantee that the weather and the lights will cooperate, and if I made it the focus of my trip, the big bucket list experience I was dying to have, I knew I was setting myself up for disappointment…and who the heck wants to have a big trip framed by disappointment? Thus, I kept in mind that having the best time in Iceland that I could was the focus, and the lights, if I saw them, would be a nice bonus.

Before my tour, I had a little time to check in to my hotel and get settled, post horseback ride. Given that I was so exhausted from the flight, I elected to use a little of that time to try and take a nap, saving a couple of hours before the tour bus picked me up to go eat dinner. This short time window was when I learned something important about Reykjavik: if you don’t have dinner reservations, you aren’t getting in anywhere, even mid-week. I tried no fewer than four restaurants and was turned away from them all. My hunger grew larger as my time grew shorter, and ultimately, I had to buy dinner from the Icelandic equivalent of 7/11, 10-11. My healthy purchases included a sandwich called a “pepperoni taco”, a bag of mini cinnamon rolls, bacon maple syrup popcorn, and a couple of kinds of candy I’d never seen before, including one called “Dracula Blood”, which was easily one of the worst things I’ve ever eaten (and just let me remind you that I’ve eaten salsa stuffed with mealworms and a centipede flavored jellybean). Dracula Blood tastes of salty pennies and licorice, and just when I’d gotten past the salty penny coating to the more pleasing licorice part, I discovered it was filled with salty penny gunk as well. One pastille was more than enough, regardless of the recommended serving size.

dinner

With dinner down the hatch, I made my way to the lobby to wait for the bus. So far, Iceland hadn’t been as cold as I’d been anticipating, so I elected not to wear my outermost snow pants. They were a little snug in the gut region (it couldn’t be all that candy for dinner, could it?)  and I’d already managed to break the zipper once, because I’d bought the cheapest possible pair online. Why spend the evening worrying about whether or not my long undies were showing through my fly when I could be in relative comfort without them? This was a decision I almost immediately regretted when I stepped off the bus into a snowdrift that went up to my knees, soaking my pants.

The cold was unbelievable. I have no doubt that I’ve been spoiled (weakened) by mild Washington and California winters; I’m no longer the same Wisconsin kid who could wait for the bus in sub zero temperatures wearing only a hoodie, the kid who looked cool* but didn’t feel cold. Lately, I shiver when the temperature in the house is a balmy sixty-five, and my poor husband has to tolerate the icebergs, formally known as human feet, that I plant on him under the sheets every night. I have never implied that being married to me is a treat, so if you ever found yourself thinking “Oh wow, Mellzah is so cool and wonderful and beautiful, I only wish she had a clone that I could make my bride,” you should know that you’d be signing up for a lifetime of tantrums and torture.

I’d brought along a few packets of hand and foot warmers, which barely made a dent in the bone-chilling cold. At first, I stuffed my hands in my pockets, but eventually, I pulled my arms out of my jacket sleeves and kept them pressed against my torso in the hopes that they would not need to be chopped off later due to frostbite. My feet, tucked inside waterproof boots and thick socks, went numb almost immediately. The icy wind bit at my cheeks as I stared futilely at the sky. I didn’t know what I hoped for more–the aurora borealis in the sky or the warmth you’re supposed to feel when you’re close to freezing to death. After thirty minutes or possibly much less (time has a way of stretching when one is in misery), I’d had enough and trudged back to my bus to await the trip back to the hotel.

The tour group, however, was not ready to call it quits, possibly because they’d reached bus capacity. The bus that picked up tourists from our hotel and several others met up with something like twelve other buses before we headed out, and if we went back before seeing the northern lights, that’s twelve busloads of people who would potentially be back the next night demanding a free second outing…in addition to any new bookings. With the limits of their bus fleet in mind, we trekked on to a different spot while I tried to rub feeling back into my toes. It was there that we got lucky. Our tour bus driver said that the aurora we saw that night was the best we could hope to see under the circumstances–those circumstances being that we were only four days away from a full moon, and the sky being so brightened by the reflected light not making for ideal viewing conditions, which, come to think of it, is probably why the week I booked the trip was significantly less expensive than one a week earlier or two weeks later.

I made my way off the bus, up an ice-slicked hill, looked up at the sky, and saw what I can only describe as a dirty gray smear that may or may not have been moving, and if someone hadn’t told me it was the aurora, I would have assumed it was an unremarkable cloud. It was certainly not the spectacle of dancing green lights I had come to expect from years of looking at photographs of the aurora, and even with my “anything you see is a bonus” mindset, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointment.

aurora

Cameras, however, can capture things that would otherwise be invisible to the human eye, and sometimes, post processing reveals things one didn’t notice at the time.

 

better aurora

 

…ah, that’s better.

 

*I was never cool.

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