A journey through Iceland

aug 26 2010

A journey through Iceland

It all began on a dark and hot (dark and cold sounds so much better, doesn’t it?) night in July. Some very last minute packing and house cleaning, for the people who were going to stay in our place, and then my friend Marleen, Marie and I were seen walking on an empty Portal de l’Angel (for a change!), dragging suitcases behind us, on our way to the 3:00 Nitbus to El Prat. That’s right, no sleep that night, bear that in mind when you picture the next day.

After saying goodbye to Marleen, who was flying back to Belgium, my grumpy self (I don’t do sleepless nights very well) and Marie got onto our Vueling flight to Paris, which for some reason seemed to last 5 minutes. We had to transfer to Charles de Gaulle airport and since we had lots of time to do so, we squeezed in an exquisite French breakfast under the – how typical- Notre Dame and we enjoyed a little luggage-loaded but still pleasant walk along the Seine towards la Bastille. At the airport we met up with Marie’s siblings (sister Titi and brother Stefaan + girlfriend Mieke) and our trip to the mysterious island had begun…

The shock was immediate in Reykjavik. As we walked out of the airport my nordic veins screamed with joy under the cold drizzle and the Spanish sweat was instantly blown away by a firm and icy polar wind. I actually enjoyed being cold for a while before I put on my coat. I immediately demonstrated my excellence in maths when I went and got out money from the cash machine. I came back and proudly showed my 80000 Icelandic crowns, until I realized that I was holding 500 euros, not 50 euros as I had thought… Bloody zeroes!  Thus it was decided that I was to pay for everything the first couple of days, until Marie’s father Jan and his girlfriend Annemie arrived and then we’d sort out the details later.

So after checking in to the hotel we headed to the city center (fairly small by the way, Reykjavik plus surroundings has 180,000 inhabitants) for dinner. It was still cold and windy and there was virtually no one out on the streets. I suspect most Vikings were watching the World Cup in the bars. I tried to catch the score every time we walked past a pub or a bar with a screen while Marie tried with all her might to pull me away (she hates soccer!) and Stefaan and Titi thought that was very amusing. We discovered the curiosities of Reykjavik: its famous hot dogs (we had to try them of course), the T-shirts we would see in all other souvenir shops across the country (Jeg talar ekki islensku (I don’t speak Icelandic); Eyjafjallajökull is so easy to pronounce!; Don’t mess with Iceland, we may have no cash, but we do have ash!; etc.), the dogless streets (it’s actually forbidden to walk your dog in some streets in Reykjavik!), the artsy houses, the beautiful bay (Reykjavik actually means ‘smoky bay’) and the funky cathedral. Back in our hotel room we were amazed by the light in the sky at 1:00 am. And that set the mood for the rest of the two weeks: at no point did it get dark during our trip. Welcome to polar summer!

 

The next day I woke up with a refreshing swim in the pool and the best breakfast I had had in ages. I was going to enjoy Icelandic food. We boarded yet another flight, this time to Egilssta­­ðir, a city near the East coast, where Jan and Annemie were set to arrive by ferry that day. During the flight we could already catch a glimpse of the raw nature of the Icelandic hinterland way down below our tiny Fokker airplane (beautiful name isn’t it?). We were welcomed at Egilsstaðir airport by Jan and Annemie and 2 shiny Toyota 4×4’s, one of which was mine for the rest of the vacation, as you had to be at least 25 to drive it.

We started driving along the coast in the most idyllic landscapes. I constantly felt like I was in a car commercial. Waterfalls, fjords, bright green hills with grazing sheep and quaint little villages. On the first day we visited a War museum (Iceland was involved in World War II, who knew…), a not very fascinating rock museum and some villages. When we got to Breiðdalsvik we checked into our hotel. Dinner was on the other side of the village so most of us decided to go by car, but Titi and I felt adventurous and wanted to cut through the meadows and walk straight there. It looked totally feasible. But it wasn’t. We hadn’t seen the enormous trenches filled with water and the swampy puddles hidden under the grass. Result: 40 minutes of climbing fences, jumping across trenches, looking for the driest bits, chasing sheep and laughing at ourselves. We arrived at the restaurant with soaking wet socks and shoes, and five people waiting for us with a smirk on their face.

The next day we did our first bit of off-roading in order to get to the Vatnajökull, a gigantic glacier. Off-roading is so much fun! I got video game vibes all the while. At the glacier we were given Formula 1 style outfits for our first snowscooter experience. And again, so much fun! Those things go really fast and when you hit a bump you really jump up into the air, awesome. Also pretty cool to see the vastness of the glacier, an endless white plain on all four sides and absolute silence. Later that day, we visited the Glacier Lagoon where huge bits of ice break off the glacier and form icebergs in the lagoon. We drove an amphibian vehicle into the water and floated among the icebergs. Pretty impressive!

Over the next few days we saw quite a few awesome things. We randomly started climbing onto rocky cliffs behind our bungalow and climbed all the way to the top, where we had the most amazing view. Beyond the cliff there was a sea of green hills with sheep and waterfalls and no sign of human life. From the cliffs we could see the bungalow park all the way down and the sea across the road. The next day we did a lot of off-roading, including driving through rivers and through a moon-like rocky black landscape on our way to a volcano. The volcano itself was less impressive since it was raining and the clouds covered up most of the view. We then drove to a remote location with natural hot springs, where we enjoyed a hot bath. We were now at the very south of the island.

Jan had to leave us for a couple of days because of his job, so it was just the kids left. We visited some pretty waterfalls and an open air museum with traditional Icelandic houses and then we went puffin watching. Puffins are cute birds that look like a cross-breed between penguins and parrots. They were really funny to watch, because they are so awkward in the way they move and fly, and they always seem to smile. The location was a beautiful cliff overlooking black volcanic beaches and the Atlantic Ocean. Then it was time for the final of the World Cup, which we watched from our Hotel room in Hvolsvöllur, about 25 km from the Eyjafjallajökull (which apparently is pronounced ay-ah-fyah-tla-yeh-kootl). A big cloud came out of it, but a steamcloud, no ashes. We were of course very happy that Spain won the game, or rather that Holland lost the game.

From there we drove on towards the very West of Iceland, to the famous Blue Lagoon, a tourist trap. 29 euros, if I remember correctly, to enter a way too crowded hot spring, equipped with fancy changing rooms and a sauna and with a free mud face mask thingy, yes, but still seriously overpriced. After this we were back where we started, Reykjavik, and this time we were staying 3 nights, so we could see the city and its surroundings. We took some time to enjoy a variety of food, because the food so far had been really delicious, but also very much the same thing. All the tiny towns scattered across the island are so small that there are only ever one or two restaurants, and those will typically be fast food restaurants. Pizza, burgers, sandwiches. Good fast food, yes, but even that gets boring after a while. So we decided to go for a Thai restaurant that first night in Reykjavik and I was looking forward to the spiciness. But it turned out that my slightly undercalculated risk – so rare for me to take one of those, hm – was not going to let me get away with it. Stefaan and me ordered the same dish, the spiciest on the menu, so spicy that the chef deemed it necessary to come up to our table and warn us that it was extremely spicy. But still, headstrong as we are, we insisted on having it. One hour later we sat there, crying with a red swollen face, a running nose and a burning mouth, once again being at the center of mocking. I guess that was our own fault. The next couple of days were also filled with interesting culinary experiences, such as eating puffin, really delicious… We had previously tried rotten shark, a local specialty, but it hadn’t been a very pleasant experience.

We discovered Reykjavik a little more. In the morning I went for a long run through the city park and along the bay with Titi and we explored the city center and the inside of the cathedral, which turned out to be very nice. We also did a couple of field trips from the city, visiting volcanic areas with geysers, one of which being the Geysir geyser who actually gave its name to all the others. After Reykjavik we drove up North to visit the town where the famous Scandinavian historian Snorri Sturlusson was born (you can laugh with his name, we did, too) and we went horseback riding. The horseback riding went fine up to the moment where we had to cross a river. All the other horses crossed pretty fast but mine decided to stay in the middle of the river, with the bottom half of my legs in the water, and turn around in circles, no matter what I did. Finally, I managed to get it to the other river bank, and when the instructor came over to see what was wrong, she saw that I had connected the reins to the wrong buckle on one side, so it obviously only listened to my commands on the other side. On the same day we went to Akranes, a small city on the coast, and there Titi and me swam in the sea. It was frrrrrrrrrrrrrreeeeeeeeeezing, Jesus Christ! I think we stayed in for about 10 seconds and then we took a hot shower on the beach (hot water randomly bubbles up everywhere in Iceland!), which made my legs sting. It was that cold. On another occasion we hiked in the mountains to a hot river. The weather was awful and we got stuck in the mud up to our knees, but we swam in a hot river, how cool is that?

After the West we drove across the center of the island, which is completely uninhabited, and, of course, unpaved. Our next hotel was a container, literally, dropped onto the rocky underground, but comfortably accommodated on the inside. In the North we did some more hiking and hot springs and we went to Husavik, a gorgeous little town with a seaport. We visited the whale museum and the penis museum, which was interesting. Did you know that a whale’s penis can be up to 7 meters long? They had lots and lots of penises from all kinds of animals. Only the human penis was missing from the collection, but 3 people actually agreed to donate their penis, so now we just have to wait for them to die.

In Husavik we also went whale watching out on the sea. We saw some Minke whales and harbor porpoises, but the prettiest creatures we saw were a bunch of dolphins who kept coming back to the boat to play with it. Really nice. There were also a lot of puffins out there, trying to catch some fish. They are the funniest thing. Their flying is about as bad as the dodo’s. They have to flap their wings constantly to stay in the air, so watching them flap their wings frantically already is extremely funny, especially when they try to take off from the water but they hit a couple of waves before they actually get up into the air. Landing is also spectacular. Just before they hit the water they stretch out their feet to break the impact and they land with a big splash. But you’ve got to give them something: they dive up to 30 meters below the sea level to catch fish, pretty impressive for a bird!

The last stretch of the trip took us back to Egilsstaðir and a nearby town, which had the biggest forest of the island. It wasn’t very big. In fact, the vikings cut down all the trees on Iceland, and most of Iceland is still treeless now, even though people have started to plant trees in inhabited areas. The next day we flew back to Reykjavik, and from there to Amsterdam. Bye bye, Iceland. A wonderful country it was…

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