Posts Tagged ‘Keflavík’

August 14, 2010

Barely in Iceland and I already anticipate the withdrawal.  Just like the post-Olympics letdown leaving Whistler, that I wasn’t expecting, this time I know it’s coming already.  I love this place so much already that I’m sure I will be so hungry for it my life will be at least partially focused on how I’m going to get back here.

The reality of going to Iceland and being in Iceland didn’t sink in at all until the airplane.  Prior to that I was completely distracted by Kevin’s sudden death and Shambhala and how I was going to get to Calgary, and then how awful Toronto was (abominable!  Even without leaving the airport, I felt bitter hate for Toronto.  What an awful place.)…that I didn’t feel the reality of going to Iceland until settling into the very back seat of the AirIceland cabin with my brother.  The flight attendants in their distinctive wool hats were murmuring in deep, guttural Icelandic to each other and our chairback TVs played scenic advertising to us- then I got SO excited!  Finally struck by the uniqueness of this adventure, and gratitude that it’s possible for us.

We were lucky to have been given the only vacant seat on the plane between us, so we could sprawl a little, and we were both so excited that we didn’t sleep the whole flight, even after next to no sleep the night before (I’d caught what sleep I did on a bench of airport seats).  We used our extra seat to full advantage, as it gave us an extra touchscreen “tv”.  So I could listen to music on one (a huge selection, like plugging in an ipod, with an all-Icelandic playlist), while watching advertising-laden info-documentaries about all the things to do in Iceland on another, and then watching flight-progress reports (Are we over Labrador?) on the  third.  Plus fawning over all the Icelandic on the antimassacars, napkins and flight magazines; cracking the Lonely Planet book for the first time and roughly “planning” our itinerary.   So we were so busy and stimulated and thrilled that we didn’t get a wink of sleep on the overnight flight, like owls with ADHD.


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After landing in the rain and early dawn on Keflavik, sleepless, I was starting to get that nauseous all-nighter feeling and dozed woozily the whole bus ride to our hotel.  Derek says I missed nothing.

We weren’t expecting to be allowed to check in at 7am, but we were welcomed in (all the Canadians arrive at that time- that’s when the flight from Toronto gets in) and promptly passed out for 4 or 5 hours.  It was like getting two nights for one, because we got up and walked all over Reykjavík in the afternoon and then got to sleep at the hotel again.

We were officially welcomed to Iceland by this cat. It’s not every day you both say out loud at the same time “Hey, is that a Norwegian Forest Cat?”

As we walked around Reykjavík I took pictures everywhere of road signs and apartments and houses jutting into the sidewalk, etc, to remember the difference about them, knowing that in no time we’d be so used to it all that we’d stop noticing the uniqueness of common design.

I love the freedom of being a tourist like that.  Instead of “Why is that strange woman taking a picture of the roundabout?”, any bizarre behavior gets completely dismissed with “Tourists.” and they barely even look at you, as you’re snapping photos of door handles.

First we headed for the Saga Museum at Perlan, because it was close to our hotel.  Little realizing I would practically live on the stuff for the next month, we sampled skyr for the first time at the Perlan cafe on the viewing deck overlooking the city, among a fantastic overload of breakfast sugar.  A “Belgian waffle” here bears no resemblance to the grilled pancake batter of NA (North America- I’ll be using this a lot).  It’s dark, to start, like whole wheat bread, and thick and “meaty”.  Not fluff.  You know you’ve eaten something, and it was delicious.  And “cream” in Iceland, whether ice or whipped, is another different animal.  It’s not white, and it’s not Cool Whip.  It’s cream coloured (wow!) – a distinct yellow buttery colour, and it tastes thick and complete and real.  I was in love with the cream in Iceland.  It must be local.  There are enough cows it would be absurd for the island to import milk.  I did not confirm this at all, but kept a fantasy that all the milk there is whole and minimally refined and therefore good for us, because it tasted good.

That was breakfast.  Luckily, a delicious introduction to Iceland, because it rather went downhill from that meal, food-wise.  I’d later be reduced to wandering gas stations in a hypoglycemic haze going “I just want something that’s not a skink sandwich!”  Skinku=ham.

The Saga Museum is a bunch of wax figures of Vikings being Vikings.  Well executed.  Static.  Except for the animatronic breathing Viking.  I wasn’t convinced he wasn’t one of those crazy people that stands stone still while people speculate whether or not they’re real, so I spent some time lurking and spying on him from other parts of the museum. Like I was going to jump out from behind the witch being burned at the stake (so that’s where all the trees in Iceland went), all “Aha!  You are real!  You moved your hand!”  No such luck, he just kept breathing and breathing.

The funnest part (and that’s saying something, considering the above-mentioned lurking) was trying on the chainmail and waving around blunt swords which are there for kids to play with.  Getting oneself extricated from a 50 pound chainmail dress provides entertainment to all passersby.  Can’t believe THAT’s not chained down- that thing is VALuable; an amazing piece of chainmail work.  Although, difficult to imagine anyone wearing it out under their clothes to steal.  Waving to the person at the desk “Thanks, great exhibit… clanking?  what clanking?”  Difficult to breathe in, as a matter of fact.  Lifting one’s chest against all that metal to inhale is work.  Them Vikings were tough.

On to Hallgrímskirkja.

Kirkja=Church.  Don’t dare say that like Kirk, a man’s name.  It sounds like there’s a bunch of “e”s in it.  Hallgrímskirkja is the highest point in Reykjavik, apparently suffered controversy over the design (surprising; considering church design throughout the country, this one looks just like a church) and some bad contractors, and the architect died before it was finished.

We were quite fortunate; after coming down out of the bell tower, the organist playing in tomorrow nights’ concert was practicing his program on the huge and very unique organ.  For free, we got to see and hear the organ boom and rumble.  Very exciting, although I would guess not so fun for the organist, to practice with an audience of tourists and cameras milling around.  No pressure.  The pew seats were another instance of cool design (I was already collecting advanced “scandinavian” design features), which could switch to face either the altar or the organ.  Genius.

I loved the clean lines of the church, the most minimal church I’ve ever seen.  It may be irreverent, but I couldn’t get fish bones out of my head looking at the lines inside this church, which is actually a compliment because fish are very elegantly designed.

Across from the church we wandered through the sculpture garden of Einar Jónsson at dusk, as the Lonely Planet suggested.  The gate was not immediately apparent so we jumped the fence to get in.  It was nice to see these bronze castings on our first day, because the whole rest of the trip we recognized his works reproduced in parks and parking lots and generally random places.  Clearly he’s an artist beloved in Iceland; his work is just shockingly, compellingly weird and striking.  So, love at first sight for me.  Can’t believe I’ve never encountered his work before.  Some of his stuff is so beautiful it makes you feel ill.

Finding the real gate, we continued, trying to find the Volcano Show on time.  Even with a map and not being confused at all, let’s just say we got there circuitously.  It’s not really on a street, so it’s kind of hard to find.  But we saw some more cats and architecture on the way.

The Volcano Show.  Well, can’t tell you much about it, because while I’m sure it was terribly interesting, the soundtrack was incredibly soporific and the little theatre was black out dark.  All I retained were visions of orange lava boiling and spewing, hypnotic music, and the feeling of struggling against sleep because something important was happening.  Heimaey may have been being destroyed by lava.  I jolted awake for intermission, learned Derek had also been asleep, compared notes (we didn’t have many), and went back in to sleep through the second half.

The Volcano Show is the work of Villi Knudsen, who is really funny, has been stealing pens from Icelandic banks since 2008, and cannot quite conceal his glee at the prospect of the next big eruption happening imminently, sure to cause unimaginable chaos, destruction, and loss of life and property (I was wake for his commentary; the lights were still on).  Hekla and Katla are both due or overdue.  Villi is a volcano chasing son of another volcano chaser, between them capturing 50 years and miles of stunning and one-of-a-kind footage of eruptions.  Which we slept through.

Refreshed, we carried on back into town; light still in the sky at 10:20.  We shared a great pizza, made for us by an engineering student, walked through the streets that were beginning to party this Friday night and walked back across town and walked some more, especially after taking the bus one stop too far, about a hundred miles past our hotel (but if we hadn’t, we wouldn’t have seen that one really weird sculpture that made us laugh).

My first impressions of Iceland after one day, as noted in my book:

Google gives Icelandic results first!
Water hot as f***.  I’m going to spend a lot of time in the water here.
Lots of cats.
NFLD in corrugated steel.
Everyone’s blond.

Really, a window into my soul.  I hadn’t even twigged to the weird sculpture and ice cream habits of the Icelanders yet, although I’d seen a fair bit of both.  I continued to be constantly mind-warped into Newfoundland, what with the picturesque fishing villages and fjords and bright-coloured housing.  The similarities are really quite innumerable, although it could never quite be mistaken for exactly the same place.  Maybe that contributed to why I felt so damn at home there, all the time.

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Woke up to a windy, rainy day.  We packed the tents wet and got out of there to warm up in a morning bakarí.  I left Derek there handling some technology and went to the local pool – an excellent choice.  It was a small pool with a very hot steam bath.  The morning pool crowd was talkative and huddled into the hottest hot tub, as usual.

DSCF6100We drove out for the south edge of the Reykjanes peninsula but got stopped by the most unique art park ever.  There were IMGP6319these bizarre, colourful, creative installations, just set around in the grass, walking distance to each other.  A bristling group of birdhouses on tall skinny poles, hard bumps in primary colours, a rippled wall of steel with cogs and gears “settled” to the bottom.  It was a very surprising discovery.

Taking the 42 towards Grindavík, we knew there was a lot to take in on this small peninsula.  At Seltún there were sulphurous, boiling mud hot pots like Hverir, but on a hill, with boardwalk winding among the hot spots, red and blue swathes of colour on the ground everywhere.  These hot places in the crust are so alien.


A little farther up the road there’s Kleifarvatn, a moody, brooding lake surrounded by grey sand and black lava formations scooped and scoured by the wind.  Big chunks of strataed lava were marooned in the sand, everything around them eroded away.   That was an amazing place, even in the stormy weather.

DSCF6157Today the wind and rain dominated the story everywhere.  At Kleifarvatn we got to witness a trip of people struggle with a doomed attempt to use the wind.  They had a two line kite, but every time they lifted it, the wind either put it into a manic drilling corkscrew or just whipped it straight up and smashed it directly back down on the beach.  We were filming their antics from a distance when  the kite just broke off and got whipped into the bank.  I think it was too windy for kiting.

And people trying to fly kites wasn’t the most shocking spectacle we encountered on that road.  Milli Vanilli came on the radio (Bylgjan) – perhaps it was some kind of joke?, and even that was topped when we suddenly overtook a runner, all in black, jogging on the side of this packed gravel road in the middle of nowhere.  That was a surprise.  Someone out there at all, but in this weather?


Just after having a quick look at the ruins of the Krýsuvík church, we pulled in to park at the Krýsuvíkurberg bird cliffs.  DSCF6186The wind was kind of crazy now, here at the water.  The sea was crashing on the rocks in the water with big plumes of surf and mist was being blasted sideways.   Exploring any kind of cliffs was out of the question in the wind.  Could get bumped off in more ways than one doing something like that.

We meandered north to the Blue Lagoon and took pictures of the very photogenic blue water on jet black rock, and the power plant that created the Blue Lagoon spa destination.  We had a very indecisive debate about whether or not to go into the pools now, decided we would, and then, approaching the door, quailed at the 28€ fee, and beat a retreat.


IMGP6423Back to Grindavík.  Hoping for some wifi, we pulled into Lucky Luke’s hoping we’d get lucky with wifi, but no.  Got a big pizza and a cheeseburger, though, and played darts while we were waiting for our meal.

In Grindavík near the community center there was this interesting structure.  Very elaborate stonework, it must have taken forever – there were passages and a circular walkway.  None of it made sense and it was very small.  The tunnels would be comfortable only for a small child.  It was mystifying, but impressive.  Great stone working skills.



We carried on west, to the tip of the peninsula.  At Gunnuhver, another hot spot feature, the wind was ripping sideways, strong and steady, rolling away the steam from the hot spots.  We ran along the wet boardwalks, frozen by the knifing wind.  I could lean into the wind, literally, putting my center of balance backwards so far I could lift my toes, and as long as it didn’t gust, it would hold me.  I could do a few seconds at a time.  The wind was so loud we were yelling at each other and the mist and rain was soaking us, so we didn’t stay long.


This former viewpoint deck, totally swallowed by the changing hot crust was sobering.  It prompted Derek to remark “Hunh, extreme tourism.”

DSCF6203At Valahnúkur the weather was elemental, and the sun was going down.  Derek didn’t even get out of the car.  I walked out and could hardly keep my feet on the slick basalt rocks, flat and slippery.  I had to at least get a picture of the Great Auk memorial, a bronze bird standing motionless, sad and proud.  DSCF6200This place is disputed to be where the last Great Auk was had for lunch, a tragic reminder of the unique life being squandered and destroyed all over the planet.  The rocks here are beautiful, glistening black out of the grey foaming ocean, but it was just too wild.  I could barely risk peeking over the edge, the wind was flapping me around so much, so I scurried back to the car.

DSCF6216Miðlína, the “Bridge Between Two Continents”  (wooo, so exciting in capital letters), is totally gimmicky.  It’s not even a useful bridge, just a wooden bridge you can walk out on and say you’re standing between the North American and European plates.  One can stand between the plates all over in Iceland – the split goes through the whole country.  We were not impressed.  However, in the sandy floor of the ravine, lots of people had written messages with rocks and stones, like organic graffiti.  That was cool.

Now it was dark we went for Keflavík.  We went straight into the crowded town and slid straight into a parking place, like magic.  The hard part over, we walked to the park on the water, following the overall movement of people on foot.  It was Keflavík’s Ljósnótt, Night of Lights, a party with a big band stage and fireworks display.  Everywhere there were families, strollers, kids running around, grownups all with a beer in hand.

IMGP6468We walked through the outdoor tents jampacked with people jostling around the tables of artisans selling jewellery and crafts.  Icelanders have a bold, unique style in everything they make, and lots of these artisans have their work in stores around Reykjavík.  I’d seen it.

We wandered over to the water, as Derek wanted to get set up for the fireworks.  Children had swarmed the statues in the park, clustered all over the only vantage points.  On the rocks by the water, kids of all ages hopped around on the big rocks, and we chose our perch for the fireworks by a boy around ten who struck up conversation in stunningly perfect English.  He admired our tripod and excited, he told us the reason for the festival was that “Icelanders know how to PAR – TAY!”, in a sudden holler.IMGP6497

The fireworks were typical Iceland too, like in Reykjavík.  No slow intro, crescendos, pauses, or building finales.  It just came on in a fiery barrage, with the slightest hint of intensity (finale), just before the sudden, and complete end.  I don’t know why this approach to fireworks amuses me so much.  Just, full on.  The effects were cool – they had some water fireworks, and everything was reflected in the water between us.

After the clear but abrupt conclusion, the band started up and everyone gravitated to the field in front of the stage.  After a while, we quietly left, and drove out looking for a place to camp for the night.IMGP6562

Headed vaguely for Grindavík, where we’d seen a nice campground earlier, we drove on the quiet road crossing the peninsula.  I was drawn to turn up a random dirt road, which had these small signs posted that were very hard to read.  Finally, leaning out of the window and peering in the beam of a flashlight, we read “warning : Military firing range area…. any unexploded shells…” and had instructions for what to do and who to notify if you found undischarged ammo.  Okay then.  That sealed it for Derek, and he demanded to go to the campground.

IMGP6337I had a funny experience, though, as we drove away.  The compulsion that I should stay and not drive away burst up in me, and the feeling grew stronger and stronger the farther we got from the place.  By the time we reached the campground, I was nearly frantic with the certainty that I needed to go back to that road.

It was a pretty ridiculous desire though, devoid of logic, so I even set up my tent before I couldn’t stand it any longer.  Knowing I’d just lie awake if I didn’t go back, I finally brought it up to Derek, practically hopping with anxiety.  “So, how would you feel if I went back to that road we were at and came back in the morning for you?”

Derek let me know in no uncertain terms that he was now sure I’d completely lost my mind, saying “Well, that defies all logic,”, and “I can’t think of a worse place to spend the night.”  Finally he conceded “If you must”, and got all he needed out of the car for the night, shaking his head at me.  I almost left rubber in the parking lot.

I probably could have the road without headlights, the pull it was exerting on me was so strong.  It was a very short drive back to it, and I parked by the first warning sign.  The relief at being back was immense.  Grabbing my sleeping bag and mat, I started walking up the road, which seemed to head up a hill, but the feeling turned me around.  I felt like I a dowsing Goldilocks, walking back and forth in the total dark, looking for the place that felt just right.  It turned out to be a pile of cindery gravel on the shoulder of the road, right in front of the car’s bumper.  I threw my mat and sleeping bag out on the “ground” – it was pretty much a pile of big sharp lava rocks meeting a pile of gravel, and curled up in it with a sense of total perfection.

DSCF6137I can’t explain the “why” of any of this, but the feelings were clear and strong.  I had one of the best sleeps of my life that night.  I remember what it felt like and will always compare nights of incredible restfulness to that night.  In the morning I realized I hadn’t moved my body at all all night, and took a picture of the absurd place I’d lain, my body all bent around the rocks under me, head higher than my feet.  It makes no sense why I felt so strongly (very, very strongly) I had to sleep right there, and that I was so comfortable twisted up like that.  Record setting comfort.

Our days in Iceland were running out now, and we were both hoping that something would erupt, soon, so that we’d be grounded and forced to stay.

Alas, that happened only in my dreams.  That same night I had a vision in my sleep, the kind that you know has happened or will, with a different quality entirely from usual dreaming.  There was a mountain to the northeast of me, erupting in bright red lava.  I was just watching it, and there were no indications of time or era – past or future.  In the morning I immediately looked for the mountain I’d seen at night.  It’s not there.


More pictures from Reykjanes.  My conclusion – seems less traveled, although so close to Reyk and Kef, and crowded with worthwhile attractions.

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In the morning there was this persistent tapping sound, with a sort of crinkly tone.  It seeped into my dreams and got really annoying until I had to wake all the way up to address this sound.

DSCF6763It turned out to be a seagull a few feet from me.  It was pecking at a plastic shopping bag!  I hissed at it and it squawked back at me.  It left, and I fell back to sleep, then it returned.  Peck (crinkle).  Peck(crinkle).  Peck(crinkle).  I threw a shoe at it.

Awake now, I got up and packed, and I really did have some room in my suitcase.   I did some writing and internetting and then walked down to the 10.11 looking for some things to use that space for.  A half dozen skyr and a pile of chocolate.  It was a good place to shop for candy (right near the traveller’s  hostel – bet that’s no coincidence) and the guy there was very proud of Icelandic chocolate.

“All this-“, he said, pointing out the huge rack of Nizza and Pipp and Lakkris, “made in Iceland,”  then showing me the small selection of foreign candy – Bounty, Mars, Snickers.  I hadn’t known that so much was made in Iceland.  I wonder where the plant(s) is/are.  I just assumed it was made in Europe, the way North America imports so much processed food.  He said “Our [Icelandic] chocolate is so different, so good.  Very good chocolate.”  I’d have to agree.  “I think every day I eat some chocolate,” he says.  I admitted I was addicted, gesturing to my mound of about-to-be purchases.  “You are addicted to [gesturing to same]…like you are addicted to Iceland!” he said.

On my walk back to the tent a kid with a basketball feinted to toss me the ball, then spun it on his finger and carried on.  That was unexpected too.DSCF6796

When I called to book our bus ticket to the airport, I found out that one way to get to the airport is via the Blue Lagoon.  For a modest increase in price (nothing compared to their entry fees at the door), the bus will stop at the Blue Lagoon for a few hours on the way to Keflavík, and you can jam the Blue Lagoon experience into the last hours of your time in Iceland.  I couldn’t say no to that, so I didn’t.

DSCF6801On the bus there were a couple of obnoxious British loudmouths going on and on and on about football and footballers.  They drove me up the wall, but Derek was probably interested in the stats they were talking about.  At the Blue Lagoon, we left our stuff on the bus (2012 note: now you have to unload your stuff and store it in the building and reload onto a different bus – the bus doesn’t wait for you – too efficient now) and went in to the pool.  It was very high tech, with bracelets that you brush against a sensor to lock and unlock your locker in the changerooms.  that was cool.  Fancy.

The thing I wasn’t ready for that totally shocked me was that the Blue Lagoon is salt water!  Nothing I’d read mentioned that.  Nor the tripping / toe stubbing hazard, because you can’t see more than six inches below the surface of the water.  The water is white and cloudy, with that seawater slipperiness.  Very interesting.

There are pots of salt clay around the pool with long handled spoons to dip out clods of it and smear it on your face and skin for the “healing properties”.  The pool is very large, with differing temperatures in various areas and nooks, and there are features- the cave, the shower, the bar that serves drinks to bathers in the water.  Just wave your wristband to pay with your credit card when you leave.


The shower is the best- a powerful waterfall that hammers down on your shoulder when you stand over it.  There’s a risk for any women with swim suits that fasten at the neck; the pounding water was determined to unfasten the top of my suit.  There were some old men hanging around the waterfall.  They knew what was up.

The salt water made my hair so unhappy.  It was squeaky and brittle, hanging in ropes.  I could hear it crying.  Back in the change room I took a forever shower and dumped conditioner on my hair.  It seemed like we had all kinds of time in the Lagoon before we had to be back on the bus, but the time ran out.  We rushed back to the bus, getting only a couple pictures on the way out.

DSCF6868All in all I liked the Blue Lagoon, but I was sure glad I didn’t pay 28€ for the experience.

At the airport we got our VAT receipts stamped, checked our luggage, and ate a skyr.  Derek had one can of Guiness left over and drank it in the lobby, knowing he couldn’t bring it on board.  Slammed it, actually.  We had a laugh about that, not sure how chugging a beer would treat him on the airplane.  At security the skyr I was carrying on was denied, so I walked back a bit and wolfed it down, then went through security again.  After the stress of security there was vast shopping options that we sort of darted into.  Running through passport control, then the gate, finally slowing down on the ramp, we realized we had definitely caught the plane.


On the plane the attendants weren’t wearing their wool hats like they had on our arriving flight.  The whole experience was a bit of a disaster.  Derek and I couldn’t sit together, although we both had windows.  The child behind me was vigorously and continuously kicking the back of my seat, and his mother couldn’t make him stop it, even after I finally had to comment about the situation (politely).  I spent the first half of the flight sitting up straight and perched forward without touching the seatback.  When the beastly child fell asleep, so did I, with the channel playing Icelandic folk tales in my ears.  Their folk tales are a bit gory.


I was feeling wistful, anxious, and a bit wound up.  Having the last Hraun, the last appelsinu (orange) chocolate, looking at the last chance to buy Blue Lagoon mud from the “Saga shop” (Icelandair shopping), it was all sinking in that we were gone.

Ever since, I’ve been desperate to go back.


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