Friday, 9 October 2009

Iceland Day 1: The Church Tour

Since I'm on the topic of Iceland may I take a moment to wish you a happy Leif Erikson Day. Icelander Leif brought the first Europeans known to have set foot in North America, about 500 years earlier than that ol' whippersnapper Columbus who's day we are celebrating on Monday, a holiday for the company where I work, so technically I should be basking in the glow of a 3day weekend, but I am not, because it's not a holiday for my client, so I have to work. Poor me!! It's a sore point, so the less said about that the better.

Anyway Iceland..."why on Earth would you want to go there?" had to be the most common thing I heard when I mentioned that was where I was going for a 5 day vacation and as usual I fell into the trap of defending my choice of holiday destination when I instead I should have asked these numpties what they'd heard about Iceland that made them question it as a vacation choice. I'm pretty much certain the response would have been along the lines of "oh nothing, I don't really know anything about Iceland," because that's the impression I got from most people I spoke to. "It sounds cold" they would say. Is that because the country has the word 'ice' in the name I asked. "Um..well...yes" they tended to respond sheepishly.


Actually Iceland is cold, well it is in October, although I'm told it can hit 24C - double it and add 30 and that's roughly in the region of 78F - in Summer, which sounds just about perfect to me, but regardless of the temperature Iceland is a wonderful country to visit. The people are lovely and highly educated, it's a piffling 4hrs 48mins flying tim from NYC and the scenery is nothing short of spectacular, I highly recommend it.

We landed at Keflavik airport last Friday, October 2nd, at the ungodly hour of 5.30a.m., and after having to take off our shoes and belts and even our watches to go through security for a second time - according to the signage the security checks in the US just aren't rigorous enough for the EU, although only parts of the EU apparently since I've never had to go through security again on arrival in the UK - followed by immigration where 'all citizens' line up together, Icelandic citizens and otherwise, we were off to Reykjavik via the Flybus (2200ISK - approx. $17.50 US each) by 6.30a.m. enjoying a refreshing blast of arctic air as we dashed from the terminal to the coach. Apparently there are amazing views of volcanic lava fields en route from the airport to Reykjavik but it was still dark when we arrived, the Icelandic sun rising around 7:30am in October and setting around 7pm, so we never saw the scenery until the trip back, however I was relieved to hear there was still a good 11hours plus of daylight to enjoy in Iceland in October. I'd been slightly concerned about that aspect of Iceland in October.
Happily on arrival at the Hotel Odinsve we were able to check into our first floor room immediately, #117, a good size room, with a shared outdoor patio, decorated in a pleasant rustic style that belied the contemporary room decor shown on the hotel website. Bags dumped on the floor, we shrugged off our coats and immediately headed for the kettle to rustle up a strong cup of sweet sweet nescafe since having not slept a wink on the overnight flight- instead I made the mistake of watching Wolverine. Ugh, what a terrible movie. Even having the triple eye candy threat of Hugh Jackman, Liev Schreiber AND Ryan Reynolds could not help this film - I needed caffeine in my body stat!!!
The first inkling that all was not well with our hotel room came as I opened the wardrobe doors intending to unpack and was almost flattened by the door being off the top two of it's 3 hinges. Ah well I'd leave the unpacking until later. My second inkling came as I relaxed on my bed, my new waterproof sneakers kicked off to the floor, feet on the bed pondering a second cup of coffee when I noticed a huge wasp - seriously huge, like the size of my thumb - ambling sluggishly across the hem of the bed spread. Bravely I leapt 6-feet across the room and out of the door into the hallway. Seriously when there are wasps in the vicinity I could teach an Olympic athlete a thing or two, in fact between you and I, Usain Bolt occasionally calls me for tips. In my 38-years I've never yet been stung and I have a tendency to over react at the prospect.

Melissa, who has been stung and didn't relish the thought of a repeat experience, was much braver than I, remaining inside the bounds of the hotel room although at a safe distance. "I wish it would crawl down onto the floor so I could drop this on it and kill it" she said waving the heavy hard backed hotel welcome guide threateningly while I hovered bravely in the hallway in my stockinged feet, worrying that waspy would crawl inside my sneakers, and ready to run in case it decided to take flight. The wasp resolutely refused to co-operate in it's own execution and remained on the bedspread. "It would be wrong to try and kill it on the bedspread right? It would make a big mess," asked Melissa.

Not to sound ungrateful or anything, since she was putting herself on the frontline on my behalf, but that was MY bedspread, so YES, it would be wrong. "I'm a bit worried there might also be a nest outside on the patio. Shall we go downstairs and ask if we can change rooms?" suggested Melissa.

Good idea!!

I hot footed it downstairs in my stockinged feet - clad in marvellously comfy Fox River Mills socks that I highly recommend if you are of the hiking persuasion - and was grateful to find the male receptionist who checked us in was off doing something else and had been replaced by an empathetic female who widened her eyes appropriately alarmed when told of the wasp - and of the braining threat from the wardrobe door being off it's hinges - and immediately found us an alternate room, the smaller, contemporarily decorated room #210 that was blissfully free of insects.

Drama over we wrapped up in a mere 5 layers of clothing - thermals, t-shirt, cardigan, second cardigan and coat - and ventured out to explore Reykjavik.
Aaaaiiiiiieeeeee!!! Good God that arctic wind, I still felt the cold even though my layers despite the temperature being above freezing, in the high 30s. I felt the cold especially around my legs which were clad in a mere double layer of tights and trousers. Reykjavik is surrounded by water on 3 sides which means the climate is on the damp side, a lot like England or the Pacific North West, so the cold cuts through your layers and goes straight for your bones, we braved it for a few hours though.

One of the first things you notice about Reykjavik is how clean it is, the colourfully painted homes are pristine, having rebuffed coal in the 1930s in favour of harnessing the power of the country's natural geothermal heat - which comes from the earth's core through various fissures, cracks and permeable rock - to supply the city with heating and hot water. Apparently Iceland has the world's largest and most sophisticated geothermal heating system. This also means you have to take a shower cautiously in Iceland since the default setting of the naturally hot water is scalding, we were told on a tour of a power station that it comes out of the ground at temperatures greater than 200°C. Ouch!! It also smells quite strongly of sulphur, which - if you're anything like me - means showers in Iceland tend to be on the efficient side so as to more rapidly escape the smell of bad eggs.

The second thing we noticed about Reykjavik was how quiet it was at 9am on a Friday morning. We saw very few people on the streets heading to work. There was barely a soul along the main shopping street, Laugavegur, and the only other people we did see tended to be other tourists. It's quite surreal compared to the constant crowds of New York. Mind you the population of Reykjavik is something like 120,000 (Iceland itself is about 310,000) which is mind blowingly small when you consider that an estimated one million people flood into Times Square every New Year's Eve.

The rather modest Reykjavik Cathedral - built according to the architectural plans of A. Winstrup, a royal master builder from Copenhagen and consecrated in 1848 - where we stopped to shelter from the wind and pray for better weather. Unfortunately God clearly knew he was dealing with a couple of lapsed Catholics as the weather took a severe turn after a pit stop for coffee and a danish at the lovely and cosy Cafe Paris (loved loved loved the cafe culture in Reykjavik) and we were so severely lashed by strong winds and rain that we had to dash into a nearby bookstore to shelter from the storm. The weather not being the best and having been up for almost 26-hours we decided a nap might be a good idea.

We popped into the scaffolding clad Hallsgrimskirkja on the way back to the hotel for our nap to say a few more good weather prayers good measure.

That's Melissa who popped up from her seat in the pews just as I snapped this photo of the startlingly plain interior. Tsk!! Honestly!!

The organ at Hallsgrimskirkja looks like heavy artillery!!

After a 3-hour nap we headed out for an early dinner at Icelandic Fish and Chips, a recommended 'cheap eat' at least by Icelandic standards, down by the harbor. We were a little on the early side so we decided for dinner so we killed some time by touring the area around the Tjörnin, or the pond as it translates to in English. It sounds more impressive in Icelandic doesn't it? Here's
Reykjavik City Hall on the edge of the Tjörnin.

A couple of ducks from the Tjörnin turning their heads 180 degrees to tuck into their backs - presumably for warmth since it was that cold by the water. I was unaware ducks had that much mobility in their necks!!

Um...a statue. I forgot to write down who or what this statue was of, but I liked it.

We arrived at Icelandic fish and chips just after it opened at 6pm where we both ordered the recommended dish of fried wolf fish - more of a tempura style of fried than the full on English style fried - with crispy potatoes. I've only ever had wolf fish once before at some swanky restaurant in TriBeCa - now closed - where I once celebrated my birthday, my 35th I think. As swanky as it was in TriBeCa the wolf fish in Iceland tasted better due to the freshness of the fish. It was melt in the mouth delicious.

I enjoyed my wolf fish with a bottle of Kaldi dark beer, which was extremely delicious if you like that sort of thing. Melissa had a pilsner and we shared a bowl of traditional Icelandic skyr for dessert (heavenly, low fat and I was so happy to discover they sell it in Whole Foods in NYC) the total for both of us came to about $47. Not so outrageous considering the quality of the food. We'd been led to expect that eating out would cost us much more and that alcohol was prohibitively expensive - "I've heard it's $20 for a beer" said a shocked Debs before I left - but I think a combination of the recession hitting Iceland hard and the fact that we were coming from New York where prices are already on the high side meant we didn't feel the expense as much as we could have, although don't get me wrong, Iceland is by no means a bargain, but with a little research you can keep the costs to a reasonable level.

Yes, I'll admit it, I'm one of those foodiots!!! :-)

After post dinner drinks at the Salt Lounge Bar in the Radisson SAS 1919 Hotel - where a glass of wine and 2 Drambuies on ice cost 2500ISK, about $20 so not as prohibitively expensive as our 2007 published guide books had us believe - we headed back to the hotel to hit the sack, admittedly feeling like a couple of old ladies after a day of touring churches followed by an afternoon nap, an early evening dinner at 6pm and drinks at 8pm, deciding to blow off the traditional Icelandic Friday night pub crawl - The Runtur - described as unmissable in my guidebook, but I just didn't have it in me. I was exhausted having got up for work in New York at 5.30am on Thursday and come 9.30pm in Iceland (5.30pm Friday in NYC) I'd managed a mere 3hours sleep in 36hours. Besides when you start you drinking life at 15 on the Westgate Run in Wakefield the Runtur seems somewhat tame and besides I'm too old for all that crap now. I was happier to be tucked up in bed by 9pm ;-)
The very purple and black Salt Lounge Bar at the Radisson SAS 1919 Hotel.


spandrel studios said...

What an intersting, memorable trip! I envy you, Fish - all the places you've been traveling this year sound like such great getaways!

And for those days when work gets the best of you, give this a read - some tactics are easy enough to do all the time:

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Thanks Spandrel, I definitely recommend Reykjavik and Iceland as a whole. I love to travel, I've realised these past few years it's something that's important to me.

Thanks for sharing the link to the article, I shall be sure to read it, I desperately need to.

Amel's Realm said...

Hey, I like Wolverine he he he...And also ALL your pics!

You should come here someday. Here the winter isn't damp...that's why it won't feel too cold even if the temp. goes cold. And there're only 8,000 inhabitants here in this area HI HI HI HI...

Anyway, I ENJOYED this thoroughly. Looking forward for the other posts. :-)))

Oh, one last thing...when I was preparing to visit Finland for the first time in 2004, everybody else I knew (except my closest friends) was asking the same thing, "Why Finland? Isn't it cold there?" HA HA HA HA HA...

fishwithoutbicycle said...

Hi Amel,

I should come there someday, travelling is what makes me happy :-)