Iceland

DestinationsEuropeFoodIcelandScandinavia

The day of errands

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After the drive north got cancelled, we found ourselves a little too lost with more time on our hands than we’re normally used to on our typical mad-rush vacations. The only things left to do were to rediscover the city centre and try out weird and wonderful food – there was whale meat, horse steak and reindeer salami from the Grillmarkaðurinn in Reykjavik – and window shop on a day that was miserably bleak and rainy once more.

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When the next (and last) day dawned in Reykjavik, TC and I decided that trying to climb Mt. Esja would be our workout of the day. Going halfway up through moss, melting snow and mushy earth was quite a challenge, although finding the parking lot leading to Esja proved to be the bigger challenge after vague instructions given to us by the Tourist Office.

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On the bright side of things, laundry went as planned without either the machine or the dryer malfunctioning for once.

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When the weather forces its hand

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Breakfast in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse is a curious affair. Waking up too early has no merits here (at least on the day we were there) because the cook who was supposed to prepare the first meal of the day was still asleep by the time we got to the breakfast room. Instead, the owner of the property, an elderly farmer by the name of Jónas Gunnlaugsson, regaled us with tales of driving through thick snow in Mjóafjörður, his theories of the missing Malaysian Airlines plane and his efforts to learn about money and currency after Iceland economic crisis while we waited for breakfast.

The worsening weather threw a spanner into our well-laid plans when the roads to Mývatn stayed closed for the whole day. The next 2 days we’d planned to stay up north in Mývatn and Varmahlíð would have had to be redesigned around South Coast driving. A few desperate calls later, we had a night booked in Volcano Hotel (the same place we stayed in 3 nights ago) and another in the Blue Lagoon (and hopefully throwing in some time around the Reykjanes peninsula as well) before heading back to Reykjavik.

Getting a refund from our pre-paid accommodation up north was another story altogether.

Daniel, the very helpful receptionist in Egilsstaðir Guesthouse, commiserated with us in a repetitive outpouring of sympathy.

“Something more should be done about this,” he said emphatically. “Many tourists come at this time of the year and are frustrated when their plans don’t work out because the roads are closed with no warning. All you hear is ‘Come visit Iceland, come anytime’ but no one is told that these things will happen. And when they come, this is what they get.”

To say that I’m terribly disappointed is quite the understatement, even though it’s probably yet another excuse to return and visit the northern part of this fascinating country.

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We headed out into the heavy rain at around 10.45 am and spent the entire day covering 3 days’ worth of driving distance in awful weather conditions. There was heavy fog in many parts and ice in others and after several near-collisions and losing traction on slippery surfaces, we finally stumbled gratefully into Vík after 8 hours on the road, happy to be alive. Vatnajökull’s many glacier tongues had disappeared completely from sight and the landscape that had been breathtaking in the sunlight now came straight out of the Norse myths of old.

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Eastwards in snow

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The second day on the road brought sunny skies, high winds and impossible views of the many glacier tongues that stick out of the southern end of Vatnajökull national park. We stopped at Skaftafell for a 3-km walk, then carried on towards Suðurland and Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon, finally bunking overnight in a country (farm) hotel that could have easily been the set of Dagvaktin.

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Weather and road checking became our latest obsession. The road leading eastwards had been closed because of heavy snowfall, forcing us to think about contingency plans at every stop on this ring road tour. It’s no casual undertaking, even at this time of the year: don’t pass up any opportunity to eat, stock up at a provision store or refuel because the next town could be too many kilometres away. On Sunday as we finally headed into the fjords towards Egilsstaðir, the chances of doing all the above decrease dramatically. Consequently, a huge plastic bag full of biscuits, skyr, chocolates and crisps took up permanent residence in the back seat, picked from supermarkets and stores found all over various stops in the South and the Southeast. TC depleted the storehouse quickly as he foraged for lunch.

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The weather turned from grey and bleak to blue and sunny again in a matter of an hour. Still, route 1 was closed for the final stretch into Egilsstaðir and the detour took us around the coast for a while on route 96 before going into town on route 92. On the grit-filled road, the sprightly Ford Titanium that had once looked like a hulking vehicle in the Thrifty showroom now resembled a tiny, beaten-down farm tractor that a horde of cute Icelandic horses have trampled on.

I always looked forward to dinner after checking into the accommodation – as a celebration of having completed each day’s mileage. Simple fare at Salt last evening – burgers, pizza and hot chocolate – made my night.

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Sandblasted on the sunny south Coast

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The Iceland adventure in a four-wheel drive began on a sullen Friday morning in Reykjavik as spring brought unpredictable winds and a very changeable sky.

After quick stop at the Thrifty office somewhere in town and a warning not to drive the new Ford rental SUV into a river, we took off for the 832-mile ring road. Finding the Miklabraut was tricky thanks to a GPS that led us to a dead end of a suburban neighbourhood instead of where we needed to go. Getting lost really (as well as driving on a different side of the road), should have been the least of our worries. I’ve been told to expect sunny blue skies replaced by bleak storm clouds at any minute and up the mountains in Hveragerði, the winds did indeed pick up – so much, that counter steering became a norm.

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Several panic attacks later after truly believing that TC would drive us off into a lava field or off a cliff, the landscape flattened out a little and we floored it, overtaking where we weren’t supposed to and accelerating straight the face of a speed camera. Our traffic sins continued in that fashion as we tried to get to Mýrdalsjökull in time for a Skidoo ride and a glacier walk with Arcanum tours. TC managed to meet that magical deadline with many minutes to spare, only to find out that the winds up in the glacier made both activities impossible. The only other option was to go in a super Jeep tour which we agreed to. Ólafur was our guide – and the first person who tried to speak Icelandic with me and failed when I gave the wrong answer to his question – up there and suffered the travails of a broken rim when we were halfway up. While waiting for rescue, he cheerfully regaled us with tales of the worst tours he’d given and assured us that this was a lucky break.

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I left the tour disappointed that I hadn’t been on yet another snowmobile but grateful that I hadn’t done it in this weather.

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The ring road is everything Iceland has to offer outside of Reykjavik and I’ve not even seen half of it (let’s not even talk about the inner roads that are off the beaten track). At every turn is a powerful contrast of black lava sand and snow-capped vertiginous cliffs as the roaring winds add to the tortured, brutal feel that you’ve come to a place on Earth that is closer to an alien (or lunar) landscape. The Dyrhólaey (hill-island with the door hole) peninsula at Vík í Mýrdal is such an example of it: behind us is Mýrdalsjökull and to the east, Reynisdrangar’s black lava columns rise out of the sea, fronted by the menacing sentinels of Reynisfjall’s basalt sea stacks that look as though they rise to the heavens.

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That there is a surprising lack of cars the further along we went is a baffling question I’ve been constantly asking myself. Where are all the people that had piled out of Keflavik airport and into the buses that headed for the capital city? It turns out that March is obviously not quite a popular month, even though visitor numbers are slowly creeping up every year. And that’s something to be grateful for really, when I’m able to stand, solitary, in open-mouthed wonder without needing to apologise for being in someone else’s picture.

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Around the ring road

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Barely five months after last year’s adventures in the north, I find myself packing my bags again and heading towards Copenhagen and then onto Iceland to conquer the deep-seated fear of driving on the other side of the road. Apart from wanting to savour the elemental beauty of Iceland, of course, this time armed with a smattering of Icelandic vocabulary and grammar and an unsatiated hunger for seafood (and Icelandic Fish and Chips).

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With the memories of Svalbard and the arctic still in technicolor, it’s hard not to be gripped with the sheer excitement of returning to snow and ice and well, extreme living – except that I’m looking at more civilisation this time around. The trip isn’t a solo one this time and with a travel companion (TC), mental adjustments are always needed. Navigating through the dynamics of travelling with someone else can, after all, be nearly as tricky as going through the cobbled streets of any quaint European old town.

Still, I want to feel the cold that insists on getting past all the thick layers of thermal wear and the delicious coziness that settles in front of a fireplace after a day out in the open. I want it to become my only thought, my only obsession. I want to stand as an insignificant speck on an outcropping of rock as the landscape harshly whispers its secrets into my frozen ears.

Here I come again.

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From the Blue Lagoon to the Alsatian flats

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A 12-hour journey that began at 4am in the morning in Grindavik, Iceland’s Blue Lagoon clinic ended on a whimper (literally) in Strasbourg, a city sitting at the edge of the German border, tiring enough to erase a near-perfect day yesterday spent in the Blue Lagoon and soaking up the silica mud.

We joined busloads of tourists for the 45-minute shuttle from Reykjavik, driving to snow-covered lava moss with the distinct advantage of staying over at the clinic for a night – which simply meant we got free entrance into the Lagoon and more time to dally. Situated 5-10 minutes walk down a winding path from the actual building through flammable (!) moss-covered lava fields, it was quite the adventure trudging through the snow when it turned dark.

Set up so that the changing rooms lead out directly into the lagoon, it proved quite a shock to see women of all ages, sizes and various states of hairiness starkers, as nonchalantly as the day they were born, sauntering, squatting, towelling and gossiping simultaneously. TC and I exchanged our experiences and found that pretty much the same happened in the men’s dressing area.

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I couldn’t help my personal hedonistic streak from surfacing when bathing in Iceland’s sub-Arctic location; its unusual contrast of glaciers and constant volcanic activity meant that we were dipping into geothermally heated water tinted a milky Curaçao blue because of the silica mud – the very same mud that you can dredge up with your foot from the uneven ground and apply onto the face! As the perpetual misty swirls arose from the lagoon, it was like descending a few steps into a cheery, bluish, mild-climate version of Valhalla – only littered with chattering tourists holding up glasses of beer while they waddled slowly around. If that was hell, it had never felt or tasted so good. In that steamy, atmospheric pool, I held up TC’s more portable camera instead, and wandered around with a hand out of the water the entire time clutching it like a trophy.

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That very good thing came to an abrupt end when we needed to depart Iceland in an early morning flight but I had truly underestimated just how tiring the entire day would turn out. TC was suitably impressed by the beauty of the city but I found my own command of French entirely too new and too shaky to make a proper impression (or even getting the locals to understand). It was pure torture navigating our way in the deepening dusk to Les Artistes – our accommodation in the quiet residential area of Elsau in Strasbourg. Dinner at Hippopotamus was an equally stilted affair but hilarious to see snooty french waiters living up to their reputation.

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The Golden Circle

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The Golden Circle tour is Iceland’s bestselling tour, created in mind for those who want a quick summary of the country (if that is even possible) and is pretty much known as the tourist’s abbreviated version of Iceland. It’s essentially a 300km loop around the south of Iceland, a well-trodden day excursion that is the staple of many tour companies.

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This time, I chose to do it with Iceland Horizons and done, to my surprised delight, by David himself who happens to be the owner of the business. We found him articulate, wry, interesting and an absolute brilliant guide who answered all of our questions more thoughtfully than his own prime minister could have done. Iceland’s economic miracle, according to him, was in part, due to the fishing industry and technology, both commodities which transformed the country into one of the most prosperous in the world. It all collapsed after the 2008 crisis but David’s optimistic about the potential and yet untapped geothermal resource that all countries are starting to hanker after.

Hauled out of bed and onto the street at 8.30am, we were bundled up into a small van and driven to the Nesjavellir power plant, a geothermal area situated in  Lake Þingvallavatn – staffed only by 7-8 members but powers the whole of Reykjavik. It was bloody cold; temperatures hovered between -1 and -7 degrees throughout the day.

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Iceland’s increasing self-reliance is evident in the number of greenhouses in the Hveragerði greenhouse village – quite the enterprising lot of people they are, after the millennium of long boats and troll stories. In between petting horses that are essentially cute, tiny Icelandic pure breeds that behaved like dogs vying for attention and getting licked in an alarming manner (TC got slobbered in the armpit by an insistent one), visiting an old crater, we finally hit the lunch hour at Gullfoss.

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Gulfoss was our first major stop, which, in winter, is not merely a massive waterfall, but an exercise in braving the elements and getting the hang of not slipping in treacherous ice. I’m hugely impressed but more with my own ability to have fallen on my arse only once.

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Just 10km down the road were the spouting hot springs Geysir and Strokkur – heated water, sulphur and fabled spa properties aside, the most infantile pleasure I got was to laugh at several fools who posed in a stupid fashion expecting the geysir to erupt, only to get tired and stop – and with a smack of cosmic timing, would the spring then go off.

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Þingvellir National Park is well-known as a location where the Icelandic parliament Alþingi was founded in 930 AD (which makes it the oldest known functioning parliament in the world), but perhaps, more geographically famous as where the American and the European plates sort of meet. In the landfall area – I’m quite tickled by how they didn’t know they held their meetings in the rift valley – there must have been good ol’ Viking fun – ax throwing games, slave trading, clan meetings and in all probably, a great deal of mead and wenching.

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The Northern Lights

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We’ve been dealing with sub-zero temperatures pretty much the entire time we’ve been here and it’s quite a challenge to deal with less-than-benign weather conditions in a jet-lagged,sleep-deprived state. Sunrise was after 10am (!) but the dim light bathed the city in an ethereal quietness that I’ve missed so much when we walked out for breakfast. A free day spent wandering the cute streets of Reykjavik degenerated into a wrestle with several Danish washing machines in a Laundromat cafe which seemed determined to make me burst a vessel.

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Reykjavik is home to the majority of the 320,000-large population, and surrounded by imposing peaks from the harbour, is at times breathtaking, and at worst, communist-drab. Sometimes, the stark difference is seen on parallel streets. Under the veneer of civilisation lies however, expanses of geography best described in fantasy novels, the desolate beauty of mountain ranges and endless swathes of arctic deserts where no one has quite yet trodden. The locals are curt and direct (perhaps a translation of their language makes it so?) but helpful and gregarious – and we still haven’t had a bad meal thus far. We’ve done too many walks down the harbour for my liking and not all of it is voluntary but geographical embarrassment aside, TC’s insistence on trying Fish and Chips the Icelandic way did pay off rather pleasantly.

It is this glimpse of Iceland that I had on the Northern Lights tour, all of which were done unfortunately with huge loads of tour buses. “Hershey” the guide told us trivia with an uncertain sense of Icelandic humour best appreciated by those belonging to the 4th dimension en route. Questions were good, he said, but sex is “beyond the scope of tonight’s activities”. I still don’t know how far we went, except for the fact that we drove on and on, chasing every expanse of clear sky, finally stopping near the south shore to look at the sky for a long long time. The lights faded in gradually and winked out without much fanfare I’m sort of disappointed, but gratified. It’s after all, one of the original driving factors for coming here.

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Flavour of the far north

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I think I fell helplessly in love with the world’s northernmost capital as the plane approached the large island from the southeast, even though it signalled the start of what is probably a gruelling journey of packed tours exacerbated by a persistent flu.

Its notoriously changeable weather was in full force out of Keflavik airport, snowing small flakes as we queued like squashed illegal migrants on a tug-boat tussling for a space on the city shuttle. Coming in winter means spending one’s days in near-darkness with slivers of daylight, cloudy skies, hail and snow, but the prettily-lit streets and white surfaces makes it a classy Santa-land.

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Apartment K is cosy at first glance, until it started to resemble a prison cell with kitchenette and a tube-like shower spitting out sulphuric-tasting water. TC’s first approving glance quickly turned vitriolic – a quick call to the fairly sheepish reception counter merely elicited the response that geothermal spring water that supplies Iceland in abundance tended to taste like that but was “very good for body”. Situated next to a bar that belted out endless techno music into the wee hours and spitted out rowdy and drugged-out teenagers, sleep deprivation was a given.

We wandered blind into the Fish Company for dinner the night we landed based on the amazing reviews on the Icelandair inflight magazine only to realise that we walked into a fine dining restaurant. Throwing our momentary monetary woes to the gusty wind outside, we walked in and took a culinary trip around the country that involved Icelandic resident ingredients and meats – fish, lamb and dairy. Caught in the freezing waters of the North Atlantic around Iceland, fish and seafood (along with technology of course) were the commodities that hauled the country out of its prolonged poverty into economic prosperity – until 2008’s financial downturn.

I don’t usually blog much about food, but I think the 4-course meal was lavish and superb, combining an eclectic amount of ingredients that actually had me purring with each bite.

It looked like this:

Langoustine & Haddock: slow cooked & spruce smoked haddock & fried langoustine, soft fennel, rye bread potato, grilled cucumber, buttercream & foaming fennel

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Salmon: malt & orange cured Salmon in mustard glaze & dill crust, seared celery purée, roasted bread ice cream & herb blend

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Lamb: fried leg of lamb & juicy lambshank, fried brussel sprouts, potato terrine, caramelised turnip paste & thyme lamb glimmer sauce

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Skyr – creamy skyr mousse& white chocolate party with blueberry ling froth, oatmeal lava & blueberry skyr ice cream

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I’m normally squeamish about fish but this blew all preconceptions about lamb and fish out of the window. TC told me in sombre, no uncertain terms that I’m on my merry way of being a food snob.

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Exhausting defiance

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My travel planning process typically runs across 2 veins: juggling foreign, captivating landscapes from which the instinctive need to explore arises (the heady rush is really quite intoxicating) and the harsh reality of cost-cutting after realising that the reckless planning is potentially busting the humble budget.

It’s a common sensibility that probably fits me squarely into the peg called “budget travel” but the penchant for seeking out strange itineraries such as this upcoming one that crosses that oh-so-fine line into “luxury travel”. I’m also quite certain that the travel companion (TC) – who had initially agreed rather enthusiastically to another jaunt in Europe after my sales pitch – is regretting just how much it is going to cost, as I am too.

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So far, it looks like this: Frankfurt – Iceland – Frankfurt – Strasbourg – Colmar – Freiburg – Basel (maybe) – Luzern – Berner Oberland – Montreux/Lausanne/Geneva. Essentially, a flight out to the near-Arctic, back into the Alsace Bas-Rhin region to explore the “La Route du Vins”, followed by a small dip into Germany’s Black Forest and then onto an ambitious alpine route across Switzerland.

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To be accomplished within 2.5 weeks, I’m anticipating that it’ll be quite a trek.

Working out the itinerary across 4 countries is admittedly daunting, but throw the accommodation and the transportation into the mix, and the sheer number of variables capped by a price ceiling is overwhelming; it leads nowhere except a melodramatic soap-opera that ends with TC’s dystopic vision of eating street food costing only a meagre $2 for the next few months to compensate for the massive drain we’re about to incur.

But witness the craziness of this plan, and then consider the nicely packaged tours that are dime-by-a dozen; I’d insist on the former anytime.

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