ICELAND: Natural, Dramatic, Surreal
Updated: Nov 5, 2018
If you’ve ever wondered what Mother Nature can pull off, Iceland is basically her dropping the mic. After my visit there, with a close friend and my husband back in 2016, it’s given me a deep appreciation for this planet’s grit and power, and people’s adaptive capabilities in the face of extreme conditions. Like most tourists, I landed in Reykjavík first, and then did a tour of the famed Golden Circle. It was a trip packed into just 5 days and it felt very rushed at times, but our guide did throw in a couple of unexpected stops that I’m grateful for. Iceland is often billed as the place to be to view the aurora borealis, and that was a draw for us as well. We were, however, treated to mostly overcast skies the entire time we were there. And honestly, it didn’t bother me in the least, because every other site we visited was a spectacular feast for the senses.
Think Narnia on acid, or the Shire on shrooms. That’s really the best way I can describe it [PSA: Say no to harmful drugs. Intended only as hyperbole]. We explored Reykjavik quite a bit, and perhaps one of the most well-known sites is the monumental Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja, in the heart of the city.
It took a whopping 41 years to be fully completed, and it’s said that its architect fashioned the design around the country’s glaciers and volcanic rock formations. Make sure to go to the top of the tower for a panoramic view of the city. The evolution of religion in this country is a fascinating read. Before Christianity, a polytheistic northern Germanic religion - think Norse gods and goddesses - was prevalent in the early centuries. It then largely followed Catholicism while under the Danish crown but transitioned to Lutheranism in the mid 1500s, which has remained a fixture since. Lately though, there’s been a movement to return to the original Germanic religions, while a good chunk of the population are largely agnostic or atheist.
Away from the city, we were in for quite an adventure. It was ridiculously breathtaking.
One of my favorite stops was an impromptu picnic on the drive to Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon . We ate sammiches, apples, and local dried cod snacks. Oh and look, there’s a glacier in front of us. No big.
The lagoon itself was rather saturated with tourists and it took some effort to find a quiet spot to just sit and take in the view. It was quite simply, beautiful. This is stuff I saw in story books or on TV as a kid. It was surreal to see it in person, and to have the opportunity to scratch that off my bucket list is something I'll always be grateful for.
As cold as it might look, it was actually somewhere in the balmy 40s (Farenheit) that day. Iceland was experiencing an unusually warm October when we were there, which is food for thought.
There’s no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland. We visited at least three - Gullfoss, Skógafoss (pictured above), and Seljalandsfoss. To get your cardio in, climb to the top of Skógafoss - close to 400 steps - to get access to different vantage points of the area. Goes without saying that you should wear the right shoes, and pay attention while walking, given the slick rock and moss around any of these Falls. You do not want to underestimate the power driving these waters.
Þingvellir National Park is a must for any geology buff. “Park” is such an unassuming term to use, given that this is essentially ground zero for Iceland being slowly split apart, literally.
Putting that mildly terrifying thought aside, you will get to see the tectonic fault line where the North American and Eurasian plates split. For the adventurer in you, you can also go diving in Silfra, which is a fissure between those tectonic plates in the park. From what I’ve read, it’s quite a spectacular - and frigid - dive. Volcanic and geothermal activities both contribute to earthquakes around this area. And speaking of geothermal activity, geysers are often included on tour itineraries including ours, though personally, just wasn’t my thing. It does however bring me to the topic of the water that’s there - the tap water has a distinct sulfur smell but actually tastes pretty good. And my usually problematic skin loved it. We didn’t have the chance to experience any of the public bathing lagoons though, particularly the famed Blue Lagoon, but I’ve been told that it’s worth a visit.
The highpoint of my trip might just be the lava fields that we saw near the southern coast of Iceland. Blanketed in moss, these fields are the result of a massive volcanic eruption in the 1700s. The layers of moss and other local fauna made it feel like I was walking on velvet. [Side bar: a waiter at one of the restaurants we went to lamented about Justin Bieber acting the fool in one of these fields, in what is considered to be sacred ground by many locals. We may or may not have blamed Canada for that].
There are several areas around Iceland like this, and thanks to great planning by our friend, we had the opportunity to go horse riding in these fields. It started to rain a little too, but I didn’t care because it was one of the most special moments of my travel experiences. Icelandic horses, though small, are incredibly hardy. Because of natural isolation, these animals are protected from disease that may otherwise afflict horses in other countries, and so Iceland has the privilege to forego animal vaccinations that are deemed critical elsewhere; as such, import of any other breed is forbidden, and Icelandic horses that are exported are not allowed to return.
When we weren’t trotting around lava fields, we were at the Reynisfjara black-sand beach, located on the southern coast of Iceland, just near the small fishing village of Vík í Mýrdal. It’s not a beach you want to swim in, given the winds and force of those waves. We were actually warned to keep several feet away from the shore because of the potential to be drawn in at the blink of an eye.
This might be one of my favorite shots that captures the essence of this great land of fire and ice. I almost see faces in those waves. Norse gods, I'd like to think.
Before we left the beach, we strolled over to a nearby farm and met this guy. He was ready to take my husband down. The wool from these local sheep is used to make the iconic Icelandic sweaters, and their milk for delicious local skyr, which is technically cheese but has more of a yogurt texture.
We wrapped up our trip back again in Reykjavík. It's a wonderfully walkable city. There are several quaint craft stores, boutiques, and java joints to explore. English is widespread, and the locals are matter-of-fact, yet polite. For example -
*heavy rain outside*
Us, to the front desk reception: "Hi, do you have an umbrella that we could borrow?"
*goes back to work*
There's no rudeness really, it just takes some getting used to, particularly if you’re used to extended banter in the American South. We had some good chats with taxi drivers though, the few times we took a cab. Since we were there right before the 2016 US presidential elections, we fielded quite a few interesting questions. Unlike the US, the governing body in Iceland is multi-party, and follows a coalition format so that no party can achieve true dominance and must work with others to govern. There’s even a Pirate Party. Sign me up.
Those cab rides took us places to eat on those especially rainy days. There are several restaurants in the city, offering mostly a mix of local, European, and North American fare. Dining out is quite expensive, even at “regular” places, so something to keep in mind when budgeting, especially if planning an extended stay. There were, however, two standouts for me. The first was a restaurant called Matur og Drykkur which puts an original twist on traditional Icelandic cuisine. We chose the prix fix menu, and it did not disappoint. Meticulously crafted plates, with my favorite being a dessert that was house-made skyr dusted with what looked and tasted like chocolate, but was actually dried sheep’s blood. Genius. It took me a bit to track down one of their chefs after I returned to the US, so I could have his permission to use this photo. He was thrilled to oblige.
The second standout was a hotdog stand called Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, which is actually a chain that has been in steady business since 1937. Their hotdogs have a lamb base, and include a mix of pork and beef too. Perfect on a chilly day. Which really is every day in Iceland, if you’re like me.
I had heard about this hotdog stand from an episode of No Reservations, the travel show by Anthony Bourdain. It’s not a stretch to say that his recent passing has impacted many. I initially thought it ridiculous when a sense of grief creeped up on me. I didn’t know him. I never met him. But that’s just it, isn’t it? You didn’t have to know him, to feel what he said, to thirst for experiences he shared. Although a celebrity, his genuine focus on ordinary people, salt of the earth people - all people - fostered a deep respect from me and seldom failed to rehabilitate hope that often takes a beating from monotonous responsibilities, daily assault of current events, and yes, depression. But it will be okay. It must be okay. Because there is still so much beauty to see.