The Swiss Family Carlson goes to Iceland!

We are on our way out here in Europe and are cramming in so many trips we are going to need to move back to the US just to rest.

Living life to the fullest and planning for physical collapse!

Part of our quest was a trip to Iceland.

So, Iceland. Here is what I know about Iceland.

“Iceland is green; Greenland is full of ice!”

And that’s it.

Oh, and vikings.

And that’s it. Really.

So this is where our guidebooks came in handy.  Iceland is just a smidge smaller than the state of Iowa with 1/10th of the population.  It was settled in the 700s by Germans and Celts and then abandoned probably because there is no food there and the land is barely tillable. Then the Swedish vikings came and, because they are hardier than just about any other people in the ancient world, settled there and made it work. (With the help of plundering and a bunch of Irish slaves to do the hard work.)

They did pretty well until the Black Death came on through.

Twice.

The first wave killed up to 60% of the population and the second wave about 50 years later killed up to 50% of who was left.

And yet the people remained and more people came to stay on this lava rock up in the Arctic Ocean.

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The landscape isn’t exactly screaming, “Come here and prosper!” is it?  I did find it pulling on me, though. Black lava rocks covered in celadon green moss and dotted with white lichen lined the highways as we drove from Reykjavik.

IMG_5015A few words struck me was we enjoyed the view from our rental house and on our drives around the country.

Awesome. Awe-inspiring. Grand. Stark. Empty. Peaceful. Beautiful.

We made this trip with our friends Liz and Alan and their two children. They currently live in America and Iceland seemed like a perfect almost half-way point. Plus only Alan had been there and even that was on business (meaning it involved hotels and only seeing downtown Reykjavik for an hour or two) and so this was going to be a new experience for all of us.

Our first stop was to the coast south of Reykjavik in search of puffins and the Arctic Ocean.

IMG_5006Iceland is chilly most of the year. We went at the beginning of May and found it windy and a bit “fresh,” but nothing we couldn’t handle. It felt more like early March than early May.

The coastline was filled with tide pools, red seaweed, and lava rocks. Even Hawaii didn’t have a coast like this. The boys bounded from rock to rock and tempted fate. Liz and I called everyone back just in time for sandwiches and our experiences at The Blue Lagoon.

Everyone goes to The Blue Lagoon Spa. It is conveniently located 20 minutes from the Keflavik airport and 40 minutes from the Reykjavik airport and has a large and sleek-looking luggage storage building right off the parking lot. With Icelandic Air offering free stop-over opportunities for passengers flying through Keflavik, tourists routinely get off the bus from the airport, stuff their suitcases in the storage room, and walk up the little path to the spa.

It is everything you would hope an outdoor geo-thermal spa would be.

It is warm. Very warm. Hot, in fact. The water is this milk-glass blue color because of the silica in the water.  It’s the same silica that spas everywhere use for facial treatments. Indeed, they had a whole vat full of silica mud for the people soaking in the hot water to spread on their faces and necks as part of the admission price.

We paid for the premium package and got the algae mask, too, after our silica mask. With our premium package we also got reservations at their excellent restaurant, LAVA, and a glass of sparkling wine each to start the meal. They were awesome with the kids, bringing them a fruit cocktail in a champagne glass and getting their meals to them first.

It was a perfect afternoon and a great evening.

We drove home at about 8pm. It was still light. We put the kids to bed and it was still light. We went to bed at 11pm and it was just barely still light.

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And then the sun came up at 3am.

So there was plenty of light at 6am to take a quick hike out on the steppes of our backyard and see what Iceland looks like close up.

And since we were up so early it was a great day to go into Reykjavik and see what the city was all about.

IMG_5036Reykjavik and its suburbs house about 2/3rds of the entire population, but you’d never know it from the city center. It’s clapboard townhouse buildings all around the semi-quiet old town that hold restaurants, independent boutiques, and chain souvenir shops.

IMG_5033Firstly, the city was about fresh fish and chips.  FRESH.

This is Fish Restaurant Reykjavik. It is right on the corner across from one of the parking lots by the harbor. It is THE BEST fish and chip restaurant in all of Reykjavik.

Not only does it serve the best fish and chips I have ever had along with cold Viking beer, it serves some of the classic Icelandic dishes.  Things like hákarl which is rotted shark and plokkari, traditional fish and potato stew/pie filling served with a dense brown bread.

This is a place not to be missed. If you aren’t a fan of fish they also have chicken dishes and a whole lot of delicious sides that can make up a great vegetarian platter.

Plus it’s right next to the harbor in case you are catching a whale watching boat and a short walk from the old town of Reykjavik. And, you know, parking is right there.

Secondly, there is the church.

IMG_5041I thought it looked like it had come directly out of the movie Thor, but given that Hallgrímskirkja was finished in 1986 and Thor didn’t come out until 2011 I am betting they modeled the main Asgard palace after the church.

Hallgrímskirkja is the newest/youngest church that we’ve visited yet. The modern lines and concrete materials attest to that. The inside is stark white with very little decoration of any kind that aren’t architectural features. There is only one stained glass window and that is the entry way.

We were lucky enough to hear a choir practicing for Pentecost service. The acoustics were wonderful. They routinely have choir and organ concerts here. The pipe organ is also incredible and the organ console sits in the back of the congregation. The pew backs can actually flip over so the entire seating area and face the back of the church and watch the organ concert.

Out front is a grand statue of Leif Eriksson. It was sculpted by the great Alexander Stirling Calder (father of the Alexander Calder that does the mobiles sculptures) and was gifted to Iceland from America in 1930 to honor Iceland’s thousand year anniversary of its first parliament in Þingvellir, a full 7 years before the church was even commissioned.

Hallgrímskirkja is kind of the center of the downtown. It’s up on a hill and a lot of the streets from the old town lead to the church. You have to try really hard to miss it. Basically our instructions to each other were, “If we get separated meet at the church.”

And outside the church was a waffle truck. Here in Iceland you have waffle trucks instead of taco trucks. The waffles are delicious. Chewy and sweet. You can get it topped with ice cream, whipped cream, chocolate, cinnamon and sugar, just sugar, or have it plain. You can find the trucks at various street corners around the city. They are worth it even if you aren’t a waffle fan. You just might be converted.

We saw the most amazing modern building. It’s call the Harpa. It’s a concert and conference hall. It was just opened in 2011 and it’s beautiful.

The building looks like its divided into three sections. Each of the glass panes are different colors and each section’s windows are a slightly different shape from the other sections. The light from the sun and then the light bouncing off the water gives it a sparkling quality. The shapes make it look almost like a 3-D honeycomb. It’s beautiful.

We ended up spending quite a bit of time at the harbor, what with parking there and taking off to do some whale watching.

A word on whale watching or any of the harbor cruises: if you are prone to seasickness or motion sickness do not go. Or medicate yourself heavily before you get on the ship. They have 3 water conditions there: rough, very rough, and canceled. We did see whales. Beautiful and wonderful humpback whales, but it was an hour out on choppy waters, and hour of watching the whales and then an hour back in choppy waters. Some of us fared better than others, so be prepared.

Reykjavik isn’t built around the harbor, but the new and more modern, hip Reykjavik is. 

There are open air and indoor flea markets in old warehouse buildings along the dock yard. Perfect for browsing around before or after you go whale watching or take a different boat cruise out of the harbor. Remember the fish and chip place I mentioned? There are about 50 other restaurants all around there to eat. Fancy places, burger joints, and at least 4 other fish and chip shops – including the not-to-be-missed Cafe Haiti. It is run by a Haitian woman and makes absolutely authentic Haitian coffee.

I can see why Icelandair is letting people have a little “try out” stop over.  (Heck, given that you can take up to 7 days as your stopover it’s a full-blown vacation inside your vacation!) Iceland is lovely.

Even if you don’t rent a house an hour outside of Reykjavik like we did you can easily get out to explore the countryside like we did on a variety of tour buses or buy renting a car.  Next time I will show you how lovely the countryside can be.

 


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