Letter from Iceland

SLIPPING ON THE ICELAND … Adventures in the Land of the Vikings

“I’m a rambling wreck from Reykjavik
The future’s very clear
We must do this and we should do that
But disaster is so near”
(To the music of Georgia Tech’s Fight Song)

Searching for a vacation destination that was welcoming, pacific (even in the Atlantic) and completely different from any other we had experienced, we chose to go to Iceland for 8 days during Memorial Day weekend this year.
The trip is 6 hours either way (no matter what they say) in an Icelandic Airline plane where even First Class is treated with ennui (one quick hot meal on a tray and you’re on your own). The female flight attendants are unremittingly beautiful, but if you’re not a talent scout for the movies, they tend to be somewhat aloof.
Due to pilot expertise, however, we landed on time in doubtful weather which is their habitual situation. Happily they’re good at it. After the usual mayhem with luggage, we set out for Hotel 101.
Actually, we almost didn’t take off from Kennedy Airport. Donald’s blue “travel” blazer designed with multiple pockets held his passport and HE, thinking “who needs a jacket in Iceland” at the last moment, left the jacket home. Frantic phone calls to our office galvanized “the troops” who found the missing documents ETC., sped through traffic and handed it all to us in record time. Luckily we get to the Airport VERY EARLY.
Back to arrival in Reykjavik. The hostelry was contemporary, comfortable, welcoming and eager to please throughout. We had pleasant rooms opposite the Harbor and a park where Leif Eriksson stood at attention surveying the Faxafloi Bay. Across the green at Harborside is the new all-encompassing Harpa Concert Hall by architect Olafur Eliasson where multiple “window” lights scroll across the building. These are especially visible as the day wanes and in our case, an almost 4 hour “night” descended. (Eliasson had a brief moment of fame on the East River with his sculpture during the Bloomberg mayoralty, but his work is well-known throughout the world.) Almost everything cultural happens at The Harpa including Flamenco.


Harpa Concert Hall

Unpacking our things, we realized it was way past 1:00 in the morning, but people in Iceland seem happy to enjoy the night hours as well, so the Desk Clerk was most accommodating to our requests. One was for him to help us install our “Sleep Sounds”; the white noise machines we travel with to soothe us to sleep, especially in strange (noisy) surroundings. We had carefully marked boxes of “Icelandic Converters” but unfortunately they were only plugs, and with the help of the Desk Clerk we blew out the fuses TWICE on our floor before we threw out the now ruined machines and slept listening to the partygoers next door.
YES, we have since discovered battery operated machines which will be the new Pavlovian sleep aide.
The first day found us with leisure enough to accommodate to the change of time (4 hours) and take a measure of the city we were visiting.
Reykjavik boasts Iceland’s tallest church which peaks above all buildings on the hill and is both an optical illusion and a true work of art. The inside elegance for worship is enhanced by two organs, one of which is apparently for services, the other for concerts. Seen from the base of the “Shopping Street” it looks as if the long corrugated sides “fly” backwards. Up close these “wings” are simply architecturally visual “stabilizers.”


Einar Jónsson Museum

Across the street is the Einar Jónsson (1874-1954) House and Museum. This distinctive Art Deco structure houses some of the best Deco and Nouveau sculptures extant… from late 1900’s to early 20th Century. Jónsson, a sculptor in his own right, has many of his works scattered about the city. But his entranceway and sculpture garden now boasts some great beauties that he created during his career.
Icelanders are descended from the Vikings, of course, but that combative strain is difficult to find among the natives we met. Those who work in the hotels, restaurants and other places of business are warm, helpful and most welcoming to tourists. Women are absolutely equal with many in governmental positions. One woman, Halle Tomasdottir, almost won the Presidency this year, and her antecedents have held responsible positions throughout the hierarchy for over 40 years. Five years after the U.N. proclaimed 1975 the International Year of the Woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, a divorced single mother, won the Presidency and served 16 years; the longest-serving female head of any country.
One amusing moment, however, illustrated the male bloodlines perfectly: A nanny with an obviously pugnacious little boy was urging him to pick up the flower she had given him. She handed it to him again, at which point he threw it hard against the sidewalk. A block or two later, I noticed the same little boy with that sour face kicking a big stone in a doorway and I laughed thinking that his Viking mother should definitely rouse that aggressive spirit towards playing the game of soccer. After all, they came so close to winning this year; there’s always a next time!



Our immediate introduction to restaurants was KOL where we were greeted with over the top hospitality. This was repeated in many places but especially when one has a proper “introduction” from the hotel or driver/guide. (There is “no tipping” in Iceland, but we often erred on the side of generosity.)
On the menu that night was Risotto with chorizos, langoustines and parmesan cheese, PLUS a main course of Confit de Carnard with cabbage. (This is Iceland, folks, with nothing but fish around it, but the dish was fabulous! We went back twice.)
Other restaurants included an East Indian parlour near by and Three Coats where true Icelandic specialties reign supreme. These include Whale, Shark, Puffin and Horsemeat on the menu, plus a fish “hash” blanketed with Bechamel sauce that reminded us of our early days in the New York 50’s where highly caloric Coquille St. Jacques was “the” thing to order.
Continuing the “food flash” we tried Langoustines several ways at Kober, and again at Kitchen and Wine in the Hotel 101. These are definitely the delicacy of the country, although there are many types of fish on the end of your line if you get to go on a Boat to catch your own, including Halibut, Monkfish, Mackerel, Haddock… and Catfish.
Touring in Iceland means many hours in a car (or bicycle, on foot, bus to your destination, whatever you choose.) We had a car with a guide/driver who in our case were two alternating men of great enthusiasm for their country. Their knowledge, charm and understanding of the difficulty of being a tourist in a different environment made those many hours eating up the kilometers great fun indeed. We couldn’t have chosen more compatible people to be with.
Taking a map of the country one can trace one’s progress from one coast to the other with countless changing topography in between. We did NOT have time to go to peninsulas in the far north. Still, tracing the southern portion once to the east, then to the west yielded many hours of completely fascinating topographical changes.
Every square mile (hectare) is a geologist’s dreamland. There are vast lava fields: think waves of thick benign lava that have pounded upon each other in earlier times, rising in waves and finally settling down and drying out. All is completely impassable by foot. Yes, there are miles of man-made black lava sand paths along the edges for bicycles and hikers, but one would risk great injury by attempting to negotiate a walk through the roiling (although cool) fields that nature has left after each volcanic eruption.
One sees towering volcanoes; many dormant, others incipient, others having blasted their lava to the skies from centuries to many millions of years ago. The deep craters are replete with valuable lava rock and sand in colors ranging from deep red to black. We drove into one crater and saw the earthmovers literally “digging for mineral wealth” in the multicolored sand.


Thingvellir (UNESCO) National Park

YES, the Earth does move!! At Thingvellir (UNESCO) National Park proof that two tectonic plates are actually separating North America and Eurasia comes as one stands on either side of the Atlantic rift. Impressive layers of rock are slowly separating into canyons curving their way through the valley. A special bridge for tourists allows one to appreciate the deepest, widest rift, but there are many other manifestations to be seen. This indeed is a “jewel of nature” and most worthy of a detour.
So many volcanic mountains provide a constant vista of peaks and “mesas” that feel ancient yet frightening in a way because Icelandic volcanologists perceive that three are ready to erupt now or within 5 to 10 years of today! (Hey, you never know!!)
Conversely, there is a section of pasture land that was totally nonexistent some hundred years ago. This verdant farmland rose and is still rising from the sea … a complete reversal of the situation that say, Florida is having right now and that is predicted for the more coastal regions of our planet.
Basically Icelanders believe that their country is unique among all others, and they seem to be correct.
Their recent prosperity, founded on a technological breakthrough with ThermoDynamics, has afforded them endless energy and water. Thermal energy heats their buildings and greenhouses, runs their factories and businesses. Their ability to grow healthy bananas (not affected but what has become a world-wide blight,) has made them a leading exporter and rather weird Banana Republic. (Their principal market is the EU.)
There is a mile-long Aluminum plant on the way to the airport that is totally dependent upon the import of raw ingredients, their own technology and thermal energy for the finished product they export. Amazingly too, Iceland has joined China and the U.S. as a source of energy for the computing power of Bitcoin mining machines which are famously energy-hungry.
Because they can heat their buildings from the center of the earth; countries are clamoring for a “cut” of this supposedly endless energy but the wisest Icelanders believe that to part with their precious resource is tantamount to giving in to “Colonialism.”
Iceland’s water everywhere filters through volcanic ash and is totally drinkable out of the tap. N.B. Iceland Water is available is small quantities in the U.S.
Transport of goods is not quite up to U.S. standards. For example. their roads cannot support the 18-wheelers we see on our highways and even through the streets of New York City. (Is this actually a good idea even for us?)
The network of pipes that emanates from sources of high quality steam plies its way through volcanic and sulfuric terrain as well as lava fields. From these rich and consistent sources of water and heat come the basis for civilization in these rough and ready areas where towns and resorts have sprung up in the past several decades. Once only fishing villages lined the coasts and provided both sustenance and livelihood for those at the water’s edge. Now there is a vibrant “inland” life that is the product of this new technology.


The Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon, a popular tourist destination, is watered by silica rich steam overflow collected in a man-made quarry and surrounded by changing rooms, restaurants, a soon-to-be hotel and the rough terrain and weather that gives it a modicum of authenticity. Add to that the native enthusiasm, clever marketing, indulgences such as body cosmetics and massages and you have an Icelandic brand that is becoming world famous. Everyone there is taking a “Selfie” and sending it home. We bought lots of Blue Lagoon lotions, etc. for the “folks back home.”
What does a tourist do to make things even more interesting? Go down into a volcano?…
Walk in and around a Glacier?….
We did them all:
The Volcano Experience is unique. One can travel there by bus, car, etc. but we “hit the heights” and booked a helicopter. Not so fast, said the weather Gods. We had to wait four days for “clearance”, but the fifth was worth it… a trip over nearby volcanoes and craters, over the neat, charming Diorama-like city and finally to plunge down to the depths in a makeshift “elevator.” What was truly terrifying was the Walk To The Top which meant clutching a rope along a very steep track with exposure on the right. (They say they haven’t lost anyone yet, but… )
Once inside … counting the many colors, layers of jagged rock, respect for the power of the earth and a slight sense of doom were compounded by watching one of our young colleagues walk around the “belly of the beast” like a Mountain Goat. (The footing is none too reliable.) For a moment, we felt cast in an Indiana Jones movie and might have to either hide or climb our way out. What’s missing that magazine photographs portray are those spectacular chromatic high jinks the professionals use to capture colors you just can’t see with the naked eye.
Then there is the Glacier Experience.
After a rather long car ride from Reykjavik past pastures of baby lambs and moms, ditto baby Icelandic horses, we climbed up to the snow fields of a gigantic glacier that covers several volcanoes. Out of one area our industrious hosts have carefully sculpted a series of tunnels through and under the ice fields complete with crevasses that intertwine with the sometimes wooden “structure”. We can’t vouch for its safety; but we did go in and we did go out. Will it last? Only the Icelandic experts know; right now they’re assuring us that there’s “no problem.” (I always worry about that kind of certainty.)
Crampons over boots are essential as is some sort of arctic “cover-up”. Thus caparisoned we sallied forth (not too fast) on the arm of our guide who explained the various tunnels and structures holding up this ambitious project. Everything was melting and (in truth) we were glad to exit, expressing our great thanks for this amazing experience.


Husafell National Park

En route to and from the glacier, we passed a National Park “development” Husafell for refreshments and a visit to Pall Gudmundsson. Pall is an artist and scion of poet Snorri Sturluson who traces his roots back to the 12th Century in this historic hot spring area (Deildartunguhver). Having studied at home and abroad, Pall uses rock, paper, canvas and bronze to paint and sculpt. PLUS he creates “stone harps” like xylophones on which he is well known for accompanying Sigur Ros’s Icelandic Band. Pall also treated US to a fine rendition of a Bach partita.
Our promised sailing trip to fish for our own dinner died with torrents of rain and strong winds that made navigation impossible as we approached the end of the last day. Faxafloi Bay was not the place to be that night so we consoled ourselves with a fine dish of Langoustines at the hotel and started packing!
There were other endless wonders we missed… more spectacular waterfalls, geysers, mountains and fertile plains … to save for the next time.
But one must also explore the “fruits of the loom” and other native treasures so we spent some time finding gifts to bring home. Sweaters are somewhat difficult because Icelandic wool is scratchy unless lined in silk. We found these in pretty scarves as well as Bird Prints on aprons, pillowcases, etc. Reindeer rugs were seductive for the side of the bed. So were napkins with artful images of birds, especially puffins, and whimsical sheep. And of course, there were blankets in delightful colors to scatter around various bedrooms – ours and others. And puffins… nothing is as cute as a cuddly stuffed puffin.
After combing through every store in Reykjavik, especially a tourist emporium outside of town where Donald remarked that we had once again found a “Friendship Store” … (a reminder of the twice a day, mandatory visit to “buy Chinese goods” that we encountered on our visit to Beijing, etc. in 1979.)
Wildly encumbered by all this largesse, we bought the biggest, lightest piece of luggage we could find, filled it up and went home satisfied that we had spent a fascinating week in a totally different environment. And the people were absolutely terrific!

Barbara Tober

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.