If there's a theme to the choice of materials, colors, and textures to our house, it's Iceland. In fact, as we decided what it was we wanted, we called our house icehouse. We just love the place. Over the holidays, we went on our third trip. Below is our travelog with a slight emphasis on architecture. There's lots of streamline moderne here [and it continues to get built] as well as "castle moderne". The new performance hall, Harpa, is rather wonderful and a winner of a Mies van der Rohe design award. And then there's the gorgeous church on the hill that we hiked up to everyday.
Enjoy, and Happy New Year!
Everytime we’ve flown to Iceland (this is our third trip), the travel has followed the same tempo: We fly off the eastern U.S. coast in the late evening (9 pm) and then get into Keflavik five hours later at 7 am local time. So essentially we lose five hours in the middle of the night (six hours when compared to Austin time), which makes functioning the next “day” a bit of a challenge. But after settling into our VRBO and a four hour nap, we were ready to hit the town at 3:30, just as the sun was setting.
O Iceland, we've missed you so! Reykjavik was alive! Tonight (the 24th of December) is the last big night out before Christmas since Icelanders celebrate the heart of Christmas on its eve. The streets teemed with shoppers, families with strollers, and angelic choruses. A large crowd (a couple thousand people)
streamed down a main street with large candles, flowing to the town square.
We could hear the Reykjavik opera singing Christmas standards in Icelandic through an open window to our flat (which is also conveniently located over a coffee house).
We hit the grocery store (what’s the Icelandic word for milk?) as well as the government run liqour store. We have beer, brennivan, and opera.
We are ready for anything now.
Compared to Christmas Eve’s eve, Christmas Eve rolled it all up, went home, and stayed in bed this morning. A few stores opened until noonish, and a handful of folks, mostly tourists, wandered the streets. We hiked up to the columnar jointed church and admired the sun, which hovers just above the horizon for four hours and eight minutes of daylight. Including civil twilight, there’s a wee bit more than six hours of functional natural illumination. We caught our first glimpse of Harpa, the new performing arts center. Harpa is geologic: tectonic plates pulling apart black basaltic blocks of columnar jointing (columnar jointing is considered a sign of Icelandic nationalism).
A plump little cat crossed the road. We shouted “Kitty!” and she quickly trotted over for some scritching and scratching. Kittytalk transcends cultures.
We partook of one of Reykjavik’s Christmas buffets for lunch (another local tradition), a great way to sample bits and pieces of many Icelandic foods aka (as the bride put it) salmon seven ways. We also tried smoked lamb, some delicious snowflake bread, various root veggies, and something that had a lot of seeds in it. Our hike to and from dinner took us past a wooded cemetary, where the Icelanders were setting wreaths and lighting candles in honor of loved ones now gone.
We drank a beer. We ate Icelandic chocolates. We lit a candle.
Last night there were trolls on the roof. The guest apartment we are renting occupies the attic of a two-story building built in the late 1800s. And last night I could hear trolls dragging dead children across the roof and breaking champagne glasses on the sidwalk (the bride is quite sure it was ice sliding off the roof, but I quietly let her enjoy her fantasies...).
We slept in (so easy to do here...) and, finding partly sunny skies sporting fire tinged clouds, we made the rounds for photos.
The weather is wacky here. It warmed up overnight, cooled to below freezing in the late morning, had about 20 minutes of clear skies before a furious snow storm blew through, and now (hopefully...) it is clearing up, for tonight we hunt the elusive aurora borealis!
I drank two orange soda/beer soda mixtures (you read that right: beer soda!), a Christmas tradition ’round these parts.
We somehow managed not to eat the foal sandwich.
“We are taking you into darkness,” purred the tour guide over and over as we rode an hour west of town. We finally stopped at a farm on the far side of Selfoss and awaited the lights, a troll’s breath of a breeze that made the 10 degree seem colder than it already was. The lights came and ribboned several times completely across the sky horizon to horizon from north to south (yes, we sometimes had to look south to see the northern lights). However, the sky held its best show for the ride home when the drivers, gasping over their radios, hurriedly pulled off the ring road at a park commemorating casualties from that particular stretch of pavement. The entire sky was alive! Draping and spiking and pulsing, we had half an hour to gape and gaw (and click click click).
We drove by several cemeteries, all lit up. “We like to keep the light on our dead,” explained the guide.
Sometimes that light is green.
In 1970 a rock band from Britain played in Reykjavik and toured the so-called Golden Circle (Thingvellir, Gullfoss, and Geysir). Inspired, they wrote a song about the trip and played it in front of 150,000 people at the Bath Festival in England six days later. The opening lines of the song:
“We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.
The hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands,
To fight the horde, singing and crying: Valhalla, I am coming!
On we sweep with threshing oar, our only goal will be the western shore.”
They named the track “The Immigrant Song”. The band? Led Zeppelin.
And so we joined the circle in hopes of seeing sites in snow that we had seen before nine years earlier (much earlier by Zeppelin) on a cold, windy (and unsnowy) October day. First stop was Thingvellir. Situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (on one side is the North American Plate, on the other is the Eurasian Plate) and next to Iceland’s largest lake, this is also the site of the world’s first (depending on how you define it...) parliament, established in 930 (the United States gave Iceland a statue of Leif Erikson, the statue in front of the basaltic church I’ve been taking pictures of, to commemorate 1,000 years of the parliament). We took a wrong turn down the trail to the Thing and happened upon a plaque concerning capital punishment back in day. For dudes, there was beheading, hanging, and burning at the stake. Ye olde time Icelanders preferred to drown their women.
Next up was Gullfoss, which means golden falls in Icelandic. Back home, over the past few weeks, I’ve been putting together playlists for each year of the 80s and, when plopping some Echo and the Bunnymen tracks (my o my was “The Cutter” good!) from their album “Porcupine” (1983), I yelped “That looks like Gullfoss on the album cover!!!” Indeed. It was colder-than-the-dark-heart-of-the-Icelandic-farmer-who-sells-baby-horse-meat-to-restaurants-in-Reykjavik out, made even colder by the fine spray of tiny ice daggers from the falls. White on white on white... The cafe there is known by the locals for its delicious lamb stew. We’re not experts on lamb stew, but it was pretty darn tasty.
A wee bit down the road was the geyser through which all geysers are named for: Geysir (from the Icelandic verb “geysa”, to gush). Sadly, due to changing plumbing from frequent seismic activity in the area, Geysir (who reportedly shot 200 feet into the air back in the day) no longer erupts. However, his little brother, Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”), is a much stubbier (30 to 50 feet) alternative (every five to six minutes) seemingly ready made for tourism.
Our last stop of the day (because the geothermal plant was unexpectedly closed) was to visit the church at Skálholt. The current church is relatively recent, but the site has been the home of the island’s bishop since 1056 when the first bishop, Isleifr Gizurarson, took office (I saw the dude’s sarcophagus in the basement past which was the cathedral's escape hatch).
The tour guide, besides blowing my mind with the Zeppelin trivia, noted that there’s an episode of The Simpsons where Homer goes to Iceland. He said that Icelanders have liked The Simpsons ever since.
Speaking of Zeppelin:
“How soft your fields so green, can whisper tales of gore,
Of how we calmed the tides of war. We are your overlords.”
Tomorrow we sleep...
The winds were wales and the seas were skirmishes, so he went where they took him, where he wasn’t planning to land on his mission to carry Christianity west. Once onshore, greeted by self-sown wheatfields and grapevines as far as he could see, he knew he was somewhere new never seen before. Leaving some of his men, he established a settlement and then sailed east to report on his discoveries.
He had discovered North America (Vinland)! He beat Columbus by 400 years! He was an Icelander! He was Leif Ericson!
Since there’s no Ericson Day Sale (that we know of...), we hoofed it up to his statue by the basaltic church, paid our respects, declared the day to be Ericson Shopping and Exploring Day, and went souv shopping and graffiti exploring (but not before fortifying ourselves with a hearty New World breaking of our fast at Grai Kotturinn [Grey Cat], a favorite haunt of the Queen of Reykjavik, Bjork).
Our conquering and pillaging of the town was not without its challenges. Except for the main drags, Icelanders are not real keen about cleaning their sidewalks. After a few days of thaws and freezes, many sidewalks are caked with three inches of glassy ice. Fortunately, as a former break dancer, I’ve got moves. The bride, however, was not amused (by the ice or my breakdancing claims). We were also brutally attacked by a street cat who rubbed on our legs in a vain attempt to knock us down. Bootywise, we made off with salt, a wool sweater, a black raven (Icelandic lore holds that a raven brought the first Vikings to Iceland), a white raven, and postcards to share news of our conquests back home. We harvested graffiti like Thor mowing down the stars.
We ended the evening by attending a show on how to become an Icelander (I am now Robert Willardson and she is now Wendy Williamdottir). We ate fish and leify greens and a cake made of carrots. We wrote notes home about waterfalls, hot springs, green skies, and other discoveries that will surely be credited at a later date to an italian (with a better PR person) working on behalf of the spaniards.
It was a gray and rainy day and it was laundry day, so not much to show and tell. The good thing about the laudrymat is that it’s also a nice cafe/bar, so we ordered a healthy breakfast (we’ve been eating skyr and granola most mornings). After that (and setting out our clothes to dry; the dryers didn’t work real well), we checked out three museums, one focused on the early settlement of Reykjavik (at the excavated site, which sits under a building; we learned that the earliest Vikings brought cats with them [and that the pelt of a old he-cat was worth three sheep pelts]), another on photography (focused on American kids and their fixation on weight and clothes), and one on Icelandic volcanos.
Because the sky was clearish in the evening, I took a peek at it from our balcony and was rewarded with an aurora borealis light show. We hoofed it up to Leif and the basaltic church in hopes of catching an AB backdrop, but were only partially successful, foiled by incoming clouds.
The Icelanders are already setting off fireworks. And the water smells like the devil here.
Icelanders are fond of their cats and their birds. For the latter, they pipe geothermal water into part of the frozen lake to keep it unfrozen. We fed those birds some Christmas bread that had gone bad. They thought it was pretty good!
We walked by the U.S. embassy. If you recall, we complained in a previous post that Icelanders were not real good about clearing their sidewalks. Therefore, we felt immense national pride to see that not only were the sidewalks in front of our embassy clear of snow and ice, but there was a dude there drying the sidwalk with a heated blower (no joke!). I hope to one day be the ambassador to Iceland. It doesn’t appear you need to know much to do this. (see link below...)
Back up to the church again (we make a pilgrimage every day, it seems), but this time we were there when we could go inside as well as up to the top. There is quite a view from the steeple. Part of the reason the church is so tall is that it was also built to hold a radio broadcasting tower.
We attended another show at Harpa, this one focused on Icelandic folk music, much of it about the Icelandic Christmas crew as well as elves in general. Icelandic lore is comically tragic: yule cats that eat raw children (”Icelandic sushi!” yelped the baritone), she-elves that whisper sweet nothings in your ear and then stab you in the heart with a tiny sword so you slowly bleed to death, an elf queen that chases you in the dark on her elf-horse. It’s all so tragically Viking. The performers, opera singers, sang the tunes quite gorgeously.
We had dinner at Snaps (fish! fish! fish!), drank Icelandic beers and listened to the DJ at Kaffibarrin, and had a piece of glacier cake from the coffee house in our building.
And what’s that? Austin is postponing New Year’s Eve because it *might* sleet? How do you postpone New Year’s Eve?!?!
Our one scheduling tragedy happened today: we had hoped to soak in the geothermal pools at Blue Lagoon (the photos below are from a previous trip...), and the place was sold out! Tried to Texas-sweet-tea talk ourselves in, but the Icelanders would not hear of it. Went to another geothermal spot, and it was closed down for the day. Given how popular Iceland is these days, perhaps we need to vacation somewhere else on the planet where people don’t normally go. Like Oklahoma.
After having had a stunningly good Icelandic meal last night at Snaps (and wanting that to be our last Icelandic meal), we decided to try the Mexican place. Not too good, but not too bad either. We stopped in at a cute little butcher shop and picked up some fish and whatnot to cook for dinner. Like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and the Second (the second day after Christmas), New Year’s Eve is a big family day in Iceland, with nearly everything shutting down by 3 pm (including the buses!). We made a champagne run to the state-run liquor store yesterday, which was smart because the line to get in today was about 50 folks long (and the store closed before everyone in line could get in).
After dinner, we hiked over to one of the 10 bonfires in town. The bonfire tradition goes back to the Middle Ages when the townsfolk would clean out the house of unwanted stuff (to start the year anew), pile up the stuff, and burn it up New Year’s Eve (my mom, a borderline pyromaniac, would love this). These days it’s a big social gathering. Icelanders then all go back inside to watch their comics make fun of the previous year for an hour until 11:30 (something they’ve been doing since 1966; 90 percent of the Ice People will watch this show). We drank champagne from a bottle black as basalt.
After that, the Icelanders all come outside and Blow. The. Town. Up. We’re talking serious explosive mayhem (locals in the know walk around with, no joke, safety glasses on). The volunteer search and rescue group sells serious fireworks to the townsfolk (the only time during the year fireworks can be bought and lit) to raise money for equipment. And all hell breaks loose as the time approaches midnight. Appropriately, it started to sleet as we approached midnight.
It’s difficult to describe, photograph, or video the true massiveness and insanity of Icelanders shooting off fireworks. And because it’s nothing but a bunch of homeowners doing it (and you are standing in the middle of the lauching sites) there’s an edge of danger to it all, like when a big ole firework doesn’t fly and explodes on the ground (which happened several times). The Icelanders start shooting the works of fire off at 8 pm, pause during their TV show, and then for a solid hour shoot the holy hell out of the sky. The town is thick with gunsmoke (and the authorities warn those with asthma to stay inside). It's 1:30 am as I write this, and they are still going strong.
Tomorrow we head home to Texas, slightly warmer weather, and our cats! This was a great, explosive way to end the trip.
Happy New Year everyone!
The place we stayed: