Yen's Blog

Lens, Wheels, Skates, Keyboard


Iceland has been on our radar for a while. We’ve just never made it there because it was so close and we’ve had our eyes set on more distant, “exotic” locales. We’ve sort of made Thanksgiving an occasion to go abroad. Last year it was Switzerland and Italy. This year we tossed around a few ideas, primarily the Caribbean, but ultimately decided not to be deterred by the truncated daylight hours and the temperature. At Logan Airport, it seemed a lot of people had the same ideas and the cramped international terminal was packed to the gills.

Iceland Air stewardesses have very smart uniforms, especially the twinkie-shaped headwear which I suspect could double as a flotation device. It was our first introduction to the Icelandic language’s sing-song lilt. Occasionally it sounded almost like a strange dialect of English. Some of the words too are vaguely familiar, like opið (open), taktu kort (take the card), etc.

After what seemed like a short flight, we woke up in Keflavík around 6h30. Of course it was completely dark. There was no sign of our rental agency or agent or shuttle. Fortunately, our T-Mobile phone now worked everywhere GSM works, which means Europe (thank you, global standards). We called the 7-digit number, just like at home (sans the Iceland country code 354 of course). The rental agencies, it turned out, is just a stone’s throw from this tiny airport. You leave the parking lot, make 2 turns, and you’re there. We could have walked there in 5 minutes, 8 with luggage. We rented again from SixT, the German company which we liked from Spain. They had lots of car available (the back parking lot was full) and surprisingly offered automatics, probably due to the number of stick shift-challenged North American visitors. We opted for a standard, of course, and got a Euro-spec Chevy Cruz hatchback. This is nothing like the econobox at home—it’s got dual heated seats! The agent was Polish. It turned out Poles are the most numerous foreign ethnic group in Iceland, numbering 9.5K in a country of 320K. I got to try one of two Polish phrases I could remember.

After a long drive in darkness and many rotaties later, we landed at Kríunes Guesthouse, which sits at the end of a tiny promontory on the left bank of Lake Elliðavatn. It looked like everyone was asleep! We milled about for a bit, then saw that the host had put a little sticker with our name next to the doorbell. We settled into our room, took a two-hour nap, then headed for Reykjavík‎.

For us Iceland is the closest European country with all the things we like about Europe—architecture, culture, cleanliness, design, traffic circles, dual flush toilets. For a tiny country of only 320 thousands they have wonderful infrastructure. It’s unmistakably Nordic with ubiquitous beautiful, clean, functional designs. Everywhere one can see where Ikea takes its roots. Our first stop was the space-shuttle shaped Hallgrímskirkja.

The exterior was inspired by the basalt columns of Svartifoss, which we later visited. The larger-than-life statue in front of the church depicts Leif Eirikson, who discovered and tried to settle in North America, named Vinland in the Norse sagas, 500 years before Columbus (from the European perspective of course). The interior of this Lutheran church is spartan and free of all the usual trappings of “normal” church. We like its lofty, luminous and airy feel.

The overall shape of the church is mirrored everywhere, from the window and door panel to the organ.

We took the elevator to the roof for 700 krónur, or about $5.50, each. It was overcast and rainy so we didn’t get to see Reykjavík‎’s picturesque mountain backdrop. But the pretty and colorful houses were just as enjoyable.

We were rather wet and hungry so we opted for the first eatery we saw across from the church, Cafe Loki (we also rather like the legendary Loki), which boasts traditional Icelandic food. It was decidedly touristy, with our fellow patrons being Japanese tourists. But the food was great and so was the view.

Kate had the smoked trout, mashed fish and sheep “jelly” as a first introduction to Icelandic cuisine. I had the special, which was lamb curry. I also had the only vegetables we had on the trip, lettuce and greenhouse-grown tomoatoes, here. If we lived in Iceland, we’d really miss greens.

We made our way down the street in front of the church, Skólavörðustígur, and don’t ask me to pronounce it.

Eventually we found ourselves on Laugavegur street, which seemed to be where lots of the shops, restaurants, clubs and bars are located. Icelanders know a thing or two about how to enjoy life, even when it’s cold and dark for a long time. No one eats or drink on the run, as if one can’t find 5 minutes to enjoy something. Invariably those disposable containers end up as trash on the streets. At home, everywhere we go we have to try to pick them up.

This statue commemorates the washer maids who had to carry water up the hill in the days before indoor plumbing.

I love Europe street signs, colorful, clean, functional. We proceeded to get cash from the nearby ATM, paying just a small 125 kr ATM fee.

At Austurvöllur, the plaque at the base of this statue of Jón Sigurðsson Forseti has 3 paragraphs in Icelandic and this English phrase, “Leader of Iceland’s independence movement”. I’m guessing it’s not a literal translation.

The City Hall is a great example of Icelandic design. It sits over a lake and has large, lofty halls with floor-to-ceiling windows facing the water. Most importantly, this is also where you’d find bathrooms.

The parking garage(?) is below a pool with a tree growing in the middle; people entering would seemingly walk down and disappear under water. It wouldn’t surprise me if the basement rooms have underwater viewports.

Monument to the anonymous office worker. This can be symbolic in many ways, I suppose.

At the feeding station.

Our next stop was the Harpa concert hall. This unique glass building is one of my favorites anywhere. I’m glad they decide to turn to their own superior aesthetics instead of plopping down another hideous Frank Gehry eyesore.

We walked along the shoreline to the Sun Voyager sculpture. It has an interesting backstory.

We made it back to the car at the church in the drizzle and enjoyed this view of the church glowing in the twilight, which was around 4h30.

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped by the Bónus supermarket which seems to be stocked with lots of processed junk food like ours. We picked up local bread, ham, cheese and yogurt for our Thanksgiving dinner, as well as some pungent dried fish and Spanish clementines, which cost no more than they do at home. Like most Euro markets, patrons would have to pay for plastic bag. We are are a huge fan of this policy, which is green and saves money. We never need plastic bags at home anyways, and it’s distressing to see people coming out of store with shopping carts filled with plastic.

We had an early night before in the morning it would be a long drive to Snaefellsnes peninsula.

Last visit: November 28, 2013