Iceland Jet Lag Journal: Reykjavik
Sistah Woman is pretty much up for anything. The girl is game. So when I proposed another mother-daughter honeymoon to Iceland, she said YES! with the same enthusiasm she used when my parents won a sweepstakes for a free year of my third grade tuition. Almost everyone I spoke to looked at me like I was crazy. Iceland?! Why? Don’t you still need to go to somewhere normal? Here’s why: blue glaciers, aquamarine waterfalls, a flight that’s cheaper than going to LAX, fields of spongy lava to frolic on, fresh seafood, Nordic roots and Nordic design, puffins, Icelandic horses with long white hair, and hot springs for swimming. K? We good? You can go to Nassau then.
Our trip was split into two parts: city and country. For the first part, we visited Reykjavik, the capital city of Iceland with about 120,000 residents. Said to be one of the cleanest, greenest, and safest cities in the world, Reykjavik is small and manageable for a three-night stay like ours. We walked everywhere, never got lost (it’s narrow out there on that craggy southwestern coast, so if we went too far in either direction we would hit the ocean and could then recalculate ourselves like a GPS), and found plenty of activities. Harpa, the gorgeous and modern concert hall that is home to the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, did not have a single show while we were visiting, but we busied ourselves with plenty of cultural activities.
First up, straight from a red eye, was an 8:00 AM visit to the Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal spa with warm waters filled with minerals like silica and sulfur. Apparently this is one of the 25 Wonders of the World…. I feel like there’s a lot of those. I feel like I’ve been to more than 25 of them. No? Machu Picchu, yes. Blue Lagoon, meh. That water though, it’s just so aquamarine. It’s the color of a chunky jewel I want to wear around my neck and use it lob curses at people who walk too slowly. Iceland has a very strict code of hygiene, and it is a matter of law, not of simple consideration that you are required to bathe before swimming. That means take your swimsuit OFF, bathe naked in showers with NO DOORS, and use soap in places that are clearly marked for you in the posters provided in the changing rooms, and then put your swimsuit back ON. Then hold your breath, and run run run through the freezing cold air into the warm natural spring. I suppose I was kind of a moron about the Blue Lagoon, assuming it would look like the pictures, where guests would glop natural mud on their faces from the bottom of the lagoon, and float on their backs looking at the Icelandic sun shine, and utilize the swim-up bar for a Viking beer. When we landed, Iceland basically slapped us on the face with its wind. And at the Blue Lagoon, the spray and mist blew endlessly at us, the sky was gray, the water was choppy – choppy! – and man was it cold.
After the Blue Lagoon, driving into the city center of Reykjavik, and checking into our tiny cottage (more to come on that dollhouse perfection), Sistah Woman was ready for a 3 hour nap and I was ready for breakfast and coffee. I spend a couple hours at Bergsson, drinking serve-yourself coffee, eating Icelandic yogurt, or skyr, and reading The Maytrees. I took a pretty embossed postcard of the cottage we moved into as a bookmark, and one of the Bergsson staff oohed and aaahed over it, saying that it’s one of her favorite buildings in Reykjavik. I was happy to have a local to speak with, and enjoyed her faint accent, so I left it for her.
One of the most trendy restaurants in Reykjavik right now is called Matur og Drykkur, which means food and drink. Sharing a space with a “saga” museum, a popular type of museum in Iceland that acts out the country’s roots à la the Renaissance Fair or the Norway ride in EPCOT, Matur og Drykkur serves traditional Icelandic cuisine with a modern twist. They do boast using locally sourced products, but really, where else are they going to get their food? Iceland is the middle of nowhere. We found that Icelandic food is best when it’s what they can make themselves, as opposed to having food imported. So dairy is excellent – oh my, the butter, you don’t want to get started on the butter – and so is the pastry, the fish, and the flavored salts. Icelanders also eat a whole lot of yogurt, and they call it skyr which is also the brand name of the yogurt you find in the grocery store and in restaurants. It’s like if we all called yogurt Dannon. Skyr isn’t just eaten out of containers for breakfast, it’s also part of dessert at nice restaurants – for instance, skyr ice cream, or sautéed rhubarb served over skyr. (Random side note: When I was studying abroad in London, I was dying for cream cheese, something I never ever eat. But since I couldn’t find it, I wanted it. So I kept asking for cream cheese, cream cheese, cream cheese, until suddenly one day someone said to me “ohhhhhhh, you mean Philadelphia!”)
While we’re on the topic of food, let’s discuss pastries. Now breakfast danish is not something I am the least bit interested in. That is the free crap that you get in a hotel’s continental breakfast or in an Entenmann’s box that you heat up in the oven because maybe the warmth will disguise the fact that it tastes like glue. But in Iceland, Sistah Woman and I were pastry and bread fiends. It was a problem that we couldn’t control. I blame the latitude. I think Iceland is just so far north, so far away from the equator, that there’s no humidity. The air is so dry that it’s perfect for rolling out thin layers of dough. I could taste every single layer of a croissant as I bit into it. And the local jams that are used inside, bilberries and crowberries and rhubarb – oh yum.
Knowing we left the last warm days of summer behind us in New York, trying to beat the blues in Reykjavik, with rain and gray skies for days in a row, was not easy. Especially when visiting places that are known for their views, like Hallgrimskirkja, the largest church in Iceland. The predominant religion here is Evangelical Lutheran (are the Lutherans ever evangelical? I mean, I guess Luther was) and the tall pipe organ was beautiful with its sky blue art installation. We didn’t even have to take stairs to the top, we rode a teeny elevator all the way up, and the views (again – not blue and sunny as photographic evidence had led me to believe) were so sweet. Tiny, orderly dollhouses all in a row with multi-colored roofs, leading the way toward the North Atlantic and Greenland beyond.
During a particularly rainy, gray spell, we visited the National Gallery of Iceland which was almost entirely devoted to the work of avant-garde painter Nína Tryggvadóttir. There are three major female painters in Iceland, all of whom studied in Copenhagen and then came back home. Tryggvadóttir’s work is also part of MoMA’s collection.
They say in Iceland that if you don’t like the weather, just wait 30 minutes. And it’s true. Rain, sun, warm, freezing, all in one day. Below, some of the lovely sites that I walked past in Reykjavik, taking my rain jacket off and putting it back on all day long.
I heard of a great restaurant inside a hostel called Kex. Formerly a biscuit factory (kex is Icelandic for biscuit), it has been completely refurbished and is a popular, friendly spot for hanging out, working on your laptop, or having a Viking beer. But when we arrived, with the highway and a drive-through fast food fish joint on one side, it was a really dark ugly building with no sign outside. Mom took one look and said, “Oh no. Absolutely not. I’m going to have to put my foot down on this one, sweetie.”I was also hesitant, but as we climbed those ugly stairs, we heard the noise of people talking and a kitchen cooking. And it opened up into an awesome space with a gastropub called Sæmundur í Sparifötunum, where we sat at the bar and had dinner. Until 1989, beer was prohibited in Iceland (apparently nobody really knows why). So this is far and away the most popular drink to have with dinner because Icelanders have some catching up to do. Even in fine restaurants, diners will drink a beer in a cut-crystal tumbler.
After dinner, we went to a documentary called Horizon about an Icelandic landscape painter named Georg Gudni. Except there weren’t any subtitles. So. That was dull. The guy’s a good painter but he is a monotonous bore to interview. Dude, I can’t understand you, so can I get one facial expression please? One? At least the landscape shots were totally beautiful, and gave us an idea of the subtle beauty we had in store for us when we would leave Reykjavic and head to the countryside. Going to a European movie theater is fun anyway – the trailers are so different, they mostly serve licorice at the counter, and the lobby is filled with weird costumes and walls of minimalist movie posters.
This sweet and cozy cafe, Grái Kötturinn, was our breakfast spot one morning. A cross between a used bookstore and an art gallery, this is apparently one of Björk’s favorite spots. Although she was not there. And I thought it was like American diner food.
One day, one glorious day, the sun shone from morning to night. It was flawless. The little cottage where we slept provided nice sturdy beach bikes, so I spent hours following the jagged coastline, discovering one tiny hot spring (filled with a naked ponytailed man who told me “on with the butter!” meaning, stop staring and keep it moving), a women’s only putting course, a lighthouse, and some sort of yellow pile of rocks that looks like a Dr. Seuss illustration. I can only assume it’s a marker for travelers or a sign meaning “hey guys, this is the end of Iceland, the absolutely westernmost tip, you can stop bicycling.” And check out those enormous mushrooms! I thought they were birds sitting on the grass, I actually had to stop my bike, get off, and figure out what was going on with those knobby little creatures.
Some helpful guides I used when planning my visit to Iceland:
Conde Nast Traveler: Where to Find the Best Shopping and Dining
AFAR: The AFAR Guide to Iceland
Food Republic: 10 Places to Eat and Drink Incredibly Well
More to come in the next weeks on my cute Reykjavic cottage and a week hiking and swimming in the Icelandic countryside.