Iceland 3/9/2019 - 3/17/2019
PrologueWe have always wanted to go to Iceland. After our planned Egypt/Jordan trip was a no-go in November, I was left with some vacation time to use. When researching places to go in the late winter, Iceland seemed like a no-brainer. It is a direct flight from Boston. The off-season time-frame meant that we could get a decent package deal on airfare and hotel. And it wouldn't be a place where heat and humidity would be a factor for Craig's MS.
I started to do some research online (largely with the help of Culture Trip, one of my new favorite sites for travel ideas). We wanted to be in the "101" section of Reykjavik (101 is the postal code of downtown), and we wanted to stay for about a week. We didn't want to rent a car, and we found that it was very easy to base ourselves in Reykjavik and schedule some day excursions from there. Looking at hotels, we decided on the Konsulat. We liked the Scandinavian design and the amazing location in the heart of downtown. As travelers who are often on the move with a tight itinerary, living out of suitcases, the idea of being able to park ourselves in a single location for a week sounded magnificent.
We used Viator to research excursions which depart from Reykjavik. It is an aggregator where you can compare excursions from different providers and pre-book them.
We have always had a thing about visiting Snæfellsjokull glacier, as immortalized in Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Though neither of us have read the Jules Verne novel, we are fans of Rick Wakeman's prog rock opus of the same name, and visited Quebec, Canada twice to see him perform his sequel, Return to the Centre of the Earth. When looking into how we could make this a reality, I came across Icelandic Mountain Guides' 2 day "Wonders of Snæfellsnes" tour. Other operators offer a single day variant, but that seemed too short, considering the amount of driving involved. Sure, it meant that we wouldn't be using our Reykjavik hotel for one night, but at least we could leave the majority of our luggage there and bring with us only what we would need for a single night away.
We booked the Wonders of Snæfellsnes, as well as a Northern Lights excursion which came as a part of our flight/hotel package.
I found Creative Iceland, a company which sets tourists up with local experts / artisans for various creative endeavors. We really liked the sound of the "Viking Knifemaking Workshop" in a suburb of Reykjavik, where you spend 6 hours with a master craftsman carving and shaping a knife handle from wood and animal horn and sewing a leather sheath for it. What a great way to get into the local culture, and to have a truly unique souvenir to take home! So we inquired about availability and booked a private workshop for our last full day in Iceland.
Craig wanted to book one additional outdoor activity, and we decided on a snowmobile adventure to an ice cave followed by a trip to a hot spring from Mountaineers of Iceland.
We scheduled all of these activities toward the end of the trip, so that we could ease into things if need be. We would be flying on a red-eye and arriving early in the morning, so I wanted to give us plenty of time to rest and manage jet lag if necessary.
Saturday, March 9, 2019 - DepartureIt was nice to fly out on a Saturday night, as it gave us the majority of the day for last minute preparations. We took the 4:15 p.m. bus to Logan airport, checked in with Icelandair, and went through security. We had planned to get some dinner at the Earl of Sandwich, but it was no longer in Terminal E. Since we didn't want a heavy sit-down meal before the flight, that left very limited options. We grudgingly decided on spicy crispy chicken sandwiches and fries from at Burger King. We ate at the gate, where a door alarm was blaring a shrill piercing shriek for far too long (25 minutes or so).
They announced that the plane was completely full, and they needed 49 volunteers to have their carry-ons gate checked. It was a large plane and it was indeed packed. Apparently they found enough volunteers, as everyone's luggage fit. We took off around 8:15 p.m. The seats were rather cramped, and there was no complimentary food, but all in all the flight wasn't too bad.
Sunday, March 10, 2019 - Exploring Reykjavik: Laugavegur, Hallgrímskirkja, Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, Vitabar, Lebowski BarWe landed in Reykjavik, the world's northernmost national capital, at around 6:15 a.m. Immigration was quick, but it took a little while to collect our bags. We were amused by the fact that there was a statue of a giant puffin bursting through the ceiling above the baggage carousel. This was our first introduction to the Icelandic sense of humor.
After collecting our bags, we went outside to board a FlyBus. We had booked round-trip transfers on the internet, as it is more cost-effective than taking a taxi for the 45 minute ride to Reykyavik from Keflavik airport. This proved to be a great choice. The tourist infrastructure in Iceland is well-developed, and the buses are extremely efficient.
We boarded the FlyBus, which filled up quickly and we were soon on our way. We saw the sunrise along the way, which was quite beautiful. The days are long in March, with about 11 hours of daylight (the sun rises at 8:05 a.m. and sets at 7:15 p.m.)
We enjoyed the beautiful scenery. Snow covered the surrounding mountains, even though there was no snow on the ground on this peninsula.
The bus dropped us off at the BSI bus terminal, where they transferred us all to smaller vehicles. Our van dropped us at Bus Stop #3 (Laekjargata) downtown, and the driver directed us to the Konsulat Hotel, about a 2 minute walk.
The hotel sits on the former site of Thomsen's Magasin department store, which had been the largest store in Iceland in 1907. It is called the Konsulat because Ditlev Thomsen, a 3rd generation merchant whose family owned the department store, served as the German consul in Reykjavik from 1896 to 1915.
Check-in time wasn't until 2 p.m., so we fully expected to store our bags and then head out to explore town until our room was ready. But to our surprise and delight, our room (#317) was ready when we arrived at the hotel at around 8:30 a.m. And the complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel restaurant was included for today as well. Now that's hospitality!
We got settled into our cozy third floor room with gable windows. Then we went downstairs to the hotel restaurant, GOTT. We chose a table at the window. The restaurant had a clean modern design but without feeling sterile. We enjoyed the buffet breakfast: scrambled eggs, ham, bacon, crispbread, salami, cheese, skyr, cranberry juice, and much-needed coffee. Skyr is a dairy product which has been a staple in Iceland for a thousand years. Though technically a fresh sour milk cheese, it is reminiscent of Greek yogurt with a hint more sweetness. At the breakfast buffet, we had blueberry skyr, and ate it like yogurt topped with blueberries. But over the course of the trip, we would learn that it is used as an ingredient in cooking (similarly to sour cream), as a dessert, etc. It is a very versatile food.
The weather was sunny and beautiful, so we resisted the urge to rest after our relatively sleepless red-eye flight and decided to get our bearings in the city. The temperature was in the 30's F, and the sun made it incredibly pleasant. We didn't need hats and scarves. Craig was wearing a glove on his left hand, which is constantly exposed to the weather as he walks with his cane. He didn't bother to wear his right glove, because he kept that hand in his pocket. He would later joke that he only wears a glove on his "cane hand" [sic] but not his "able hand" [sic]. We crack ourselves up!
We walked a couple of blocks to Harpa, a beautiful modern glass cube building which houses a concert hall and conference center, right on the harbor. The facade is made of three dimensional glass rectangles which call to mind the basalt landscape of Iceland. In front of the building was a reflecting pool and a statue of a cellist. We had purchased online tickets to the Icelandic Symphony at Harpa for Thursday night. We knew that we may not make it back from our 2-day Snæfellsnes excursion in time, but the tickets were very reasonably priced, so we figured we would take the chance. It wasn't enough money to worry about if we weren't able to make it.
We walked along the harbor, admiring the water and the surrounding mountains and glaciers. The ocean had that frigid yet glassy look that we were familiar with from Glacier Bay in Alaska.
We saw a coast guard vessel, and walked over to South Mole (Ingólfsgarði), one of two squat yellow corrugated metal lighthouses which guide ships into the Old Harbour.
Behind North Mole (Norðurgarði) we could see a mound-shaped hill. This, we found out later, was Þúfa, an outdoor art installation by Ólöf Nordal. It is a mound from which you can look out over the ocean. On top is a wooden cage in which fish have traditionally been dried by the wind. They keep it stocked with dead fish to provide the authentic experience.
This area is the "Old Harbour", which is seeing a resurgence as a shopping and dining destination. We intended to explore that area later in the trip, though it never came to pass. Something to do next time!
We decided we wanted to eventually make our way to Hallgrímskirkja, the iconic arhcitecturally unique church which towers over the city. It is a symbol of Reykjavik (Lutheranism being the national religion in Iceland), and we have been told that the views of the city from the top of its tower are incomparable. The church is visible from pretty much anywhere in the city, so we knew we'd be able to find it. We decided to walk in that general direction and explore as we went.
We stopped to admire a statue of Ingólfur Arnarson by Einar Jonsson in a small park. Arnarson is recognized as the first permanent Norse settler in Iceland, founding Reykjavik in 874 A.D., and naming it after the steam from the surrounding hot springs (Reykur = smoke Vik = small bay). Arnarson is depicted here with Óðinn and his two ravens Hugin and Munin. The statue dates back to 1924.
We walked through the city streets, enjoying its quirky charm. We love the architecture. Many houses are clad in cheerfully painted corrugated metal siding and roofing. It reminded us of similar building styles in harsh climates we have visited such as Patagonia and Alaska.
The restaurants and bars were quite amusing. One was named "Bastard," another was named and themed after the movie "The Big Lebowski", and then there was the "Chuck Norris Grill." We passed the Kiki Queer Bar, whose corrugated metal cladding and trim was delightfully rainbow colored.
There were many murals painted on the side of buildings. One, on the side of Verslun Guðsteins Eyjólfssonar menswear store, shows instructions for three different methods of tying a necktie.
Many of the other murals are part of a project called Wall Poetry, a collaboration between Icelandic Airwaves music festival and Berlin's Urban Nation. Street artists from around the world take inspiration from Icelandic music and the results are stunning.
We went into several souvenir and bookshops, which are heavy on Viking and puffin memorabilia. If it's a very small shop with no customers in it, the proprietor is likely standing just outside the front door vaping, and will enter the store with you if you decide to go in. It seems like many Icelanders vape, while many tourists smoke cigarettes. In a country with such environmental consciousness and fresh air, the amount smoke on the city streets comes as an unpleasant shock.
I got a picture of Craig with a larger than life Thor statue in a shop called, simply, Thor. I loved the Icelandic wool hats and sweaters we saw in many shops, but they were cost prohibitive since I didn't really need them. Everything was quite pricey, with even T-shirts around $35-40. We decided that we would have to be discerning in our souvenir shopping.
We passed a Christmas shop, and through the door I could see various matryoshka dolls. I have a collection of these Russian nesting dolls, and was interested in seeing what they had for sale. In the window of the shop next door, Craig saw some small fairy dolls that would make nice Christmas ornaments. Both shops were closed on Sundays, so we made a mental note to return later in the week. The shops were on Laugavegur, which is one of the busiest tourist streets downtown, so we knew that we would be able to easily find them again.
We arrived at Hallgrímskirkja shortly before 1 p.m. The facade of the church is built to resemble basalt rock columns which are prevalent in the country's geology. The central feature is its imposing 244 foot tower. Craig and I were a bit nervous; in the recent past we have had bad luck with such towers (in Ecuador the Virgin of Quito was closed for climbing as were the towers at the Basilica).
We approached the church. A few tourists had congregated outside, and a sign said "Tower closed." Really? Would our streak of bad luck continue? Then I read the fine print. Sunday services were in progress, and the church (and tower) would reopen once they concluded, at 1 p.m. Our luck was actually quite good. We only needed to wait about 10 minutes before we were allowed to enter the church gift shop to purchase tickets to visit the tower.
We hadn't exchanged any money as we had been told that just about everything accepts credit cards. The church accepted U.S. dollars, so I paid in U.S. cash and received change in Icelandic Krona (ISK). It was the only krona that we would receive over the entire course of our trip.
The elevator to the tower was quite small, and only a handful at a time can fit. Soon there was quite a backlog of people, but we were in the second elevator run and got to enjoy the tower while it wasn't yet crowded.
We rode an elevator 8 stories to the top of the clock tower, from which we had panoramic views of the city. The weather couldn't be better for this. The sky was bright blue and the sun shone on the colorful city buildings. We could see the Tjörnin lake, the ocean, mountains, and the runways of the city airport.
We could see through the translucent clock faces, and were treated to the church bells ringing at 1:15 while we were in the tower.
We rode back down in the elevator and toured the inside of the Lutheran church. The all-white interior had a certain nordic simplicity to its design, while also evoking a feeling of grandeur with its tall gothic vaulted archways. Sunbeams streamed in via tall, narrow leaded glass windows. Embellishments were few and carefully chosen: a small colorful stained glass window, two gold leaf icon paintings, a white statue of Jesus.
The baptismal font was of very minimalist design, but the materials were extraordinary. The base was made of Icelandic basalt, while the bowl was carved from Czech lead crystal. The sunlight streaming through the windows was refracted into rainbows in the facets of the crystal. It reminded us of the Viking sunstone. This was a clear boxy crystal (perhaps Iceland spar) which, it is theorized, refracted light in such a way that it helped Viking navigators to locate the sun even in overcast and stormy conditions.
The ends of the wooden pews were shaped like the church's silhouette. A wooden pulpit (also mimicing the silhouette of the church) stood to the right of the altar area.
Almost more arresting than any of the other design elements is the Klaisorgan, a pipe organ constructed in 1992 by the Johannes Klais Organworks in Bonn, Germany. It consists of 5275 pipes, which are arranged like a 3 dimensional sculpture in a wooden frame above the entrance to the church. In fact, we saw a poster advertising a choral and organ concert here tonight! That must be something to hear. But we were too afraid that our jet lag would cause us to fall asleep immediately after sitting down, so we decided against it.
There was a statue of Leifur Erikson by Alexander Stirling Calder in front of the church; a gift from the USA in 1930 to celebrate the 1,000th aniversary of the founding of the Althingi (Icelandic Parliament). Iceland is the oldest democracy in the world.
We decided to cross the street and work our way back toward the hotel area. Our first stop was Tulipop, flagship shop for the "Icelandic character-based lifestyle brand." Think Hello Kitty meets Super Mario. It seems to be a microcosm of Iceland and its belief in "hidden peoples" (elves, trolls, etc.) The characters (mushroom people, a bear, a monster, a tree, and a skull) inhabit the volcanic Tulipop Island ("Tulipop is full of waterfalls, rugged mountains, hot springs and golden sands"...sound familiar?), and exhibit very human foibles.
We visited 12 Tonar, a record shop. We browsed through CD's and art photographs. The store also had many LP's, stickers, etc. The proprietor was quite friendly, and offered us a cup of coffee. We politely declined, very much appreciating his offer but feeling the American guilt of not wanting to accept hospitality since we were only browsing and didn't plan to purchase anything.
We had done a lot of walking and hadn't yet had lunch. It was mid-afternoon and we didn't want to eat anything too big as we would probably have an early dinner. But our energy was depleted and we needed something. We were on the lookout for a bar we had discovered online called the Smokin' Puffin because...we have always had quite an affinity for puffins, and how can you resist the image of a Puffin in a captain's hat smoking a pipe? The internet had said that it was quite close to the hotel. We didn't know if they served snacks or just drinks...maybe we could have a bite to eat there.
We had a hard time locating it at first, and another Christmas shop caught our eye. This one was open, so we stepped inside. The shop was called Jólahúsið (Christmas House). It was here that we first learned of the Jólakötturinn (Yule Cat). This is a huge, ferocious black cat which eats anyone who has not received new clothes before Christmas Eve. This is said to have evolved as a tradition to inspire efficient work, as farm owners would reward good workers with new clothes. Of course it also works as good incentive for children to behave (and to appreciate clothing as a Christmas gift).
The Yule Cat belongs to troll couple Grýla and Leppalúði. Grýla kidnaps and eats disobedient children. Grýla and Leppalúði's 13 children are known as the Yule Lads. These pranksters come to town one by one on the 13 nights before Christmas. Children leave shoes on windowsills, and the Yule Lads fill them with a small gift if the child has been good, and a potato if the child has been bad. These Christmas traditions, like the Santa Claus tradition, are a way to encourage good behavior / chores / morality without overtly relying on religion.
The Yule Lads, as described by Wikipedia:
We bought a couple of items (including a Yule Cat ornament) at this Christmas shop. When we exited, we realized that the Smokin' Puffin was right next door! The reason we hadn't noticed it before was that it was still sporting signage from its previous incarnation: the Tivoli Bar. We hadn't noticed the Smokin' Puffin logo on the windows. The shades were drawn and the place looked closed, though the internet claimed it had opened at 1 p.m. Weird. Well, no light lunch here.
Instead, we stopped for hot dogs at Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur. The small hot dog stand is literally next door to our hotel. They sell two items: hot dogs and small fountain drinks. (In fact, there is a computational chart taped to the inside wall which is just a grid of prices with number of hot dogs as one axis, and number of drinks as the other). These hot dogs are world famous and were enjoyed by President Clinton. The dogs themselves are lamb-based, mixed with pork and beef. We asked for two dogs "the way the locals eat them." This included ketchup, sweet mustard, remoulade, crisp fried onion, and raw onion. They were absolutely delicious! We each got a Fanta as well, but held off on drinking it in order to savor the delicious flavors of the hot dogs. In a town where food is very expensive, delicious and functional fast food such as this is a great option.
We returned to our hotel room for a brief siesta. Our legs were sore, and we sat on the bed looking at some of the photos I had taken so far. We were both getting sleepy. It was only 3:30 p.m. If we went to bed now, we would wake up way too early and it would hinder our ability to acclimate to the time zone.
So after about an hour and a half, we decided to go back out again and have a proper dinner. We had read about Vitabar, a hole in the wall local joint with a reputation for great burgers, on Culture Trip. This sounded perfect for us right now, so I looked up directions, jotted them down, and we were on our way.
When we arrived, we ordered drinks at the bar and took menus back to our table. When we decided what we wanted, I ordered at the bar and paid up front. I drank a Bacardi Breezer, wanting something alcoholic, but unable to drink beer because I amn allergic to hops.
Craig tried an Einstok Icelandic Toasted Porter. Craig loved it! Per their marketing, "Smooth and roasty with some chocolate, toffee and licorice notes, with a subtle coffee undertone." This sounded delicious to me, and since it had low hops content, I took a sip and found that I really enjoyed the taste as well.
Soon our burgers arrived. We each had the "Forget-Me-Not", their special bleu cheese burger served with garlic and their "special herb blend sauce", and an order of onion rings. It was absolutely delicious. It was a nice, low-key, tasty, affordable dinner.
On our walk back to the hotel, we couldn't resist stopping into the Lebowski Bar for a nightcap. The place was a trip. It was established in 2012, and is based on our beloved 1998 Coen Brothers cult comedy film "The Big Lebowski." From what we have seen so far, Icelanders embrace quirkiness and dark humor, which explains why this particular movie resonates here.
A sign in the window warned "If you are racist, sexist, homophobic, or an asshole...don't come in!" The welcome mat was decorated like an Oriental rug and said "The rug really ties the room together." (Said rug is a plot driver in the movie).
The place boasts over 20 varieties of White Russians (The Dude's favorite cocktail in the film). We each tried a Siberian (White Russian shake), featuring Vodka, Kahlua, Bailey's, and ice cream. Even at $20 a pop, it didn't disappoint. They didn't skimp on the booze and it was absolutely delicious.
There were three American women in the same little room where we were seated. Beverly Hills Cop was playing on the projection TV, with no sound but the subtitles were on. Everyone was getting a big kick out of it. The drinks were flowing and everyone was enjoying the 1980's-1990's nostalgia.
The Dude abides...in Reykjavik!
On our walk back to the hotel, it was starting to get dark. We had a nice view of Harpa, lit up in various colors in the darkening sky. By 8:30 p.m., we were back in our room. We had successfully stayed awake all day, and could now enjoy a good, long, uninterrupted night's sleep to tackle our jetlag.
Hotel Konsulat in the 101 district of Reykjavik
Sunrise over Keflavik
Room #317, Reykjavik Konsulat Hotel
Selfie at the Harbor
Ingólfur Arnarson by Einar Jonsson
Craig with Thor
Kiki Queer Bar
Reykjavik Row Houses
View from Hallgrímskirkja tower
Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur - World famous hot dogs
White Russians at the Lebowski Bar
See all photos from March 9
See all photos from March 10
View from Hallgrímskirkja