Iceland Part 1 (Land of Fire and Ice)
Since the time of Papar and Leif Erikson Iceland has seen its share of visitors. In the tradition of the Norse adventurers, Four Friends embarked on their own saga. Our sights set on the small island nation, that saddles the Arctic and Atlantic Ocean. In true Four Friends style, the trip was a short 5 nights and 4 days.
Starting out in Reykjavík the self-drive journey would encompass some of the most popular locations in southeastern Iceland.
ICELAND DAY 0.5
Arriving late on a Wednesday night, we headed straight to the Budget car rental counter. Despite some technical issues with the payment system the team at Budget had us on the road as quickly as possible. With a self-tour planned, we took advantage of the GPS and 3G LTE WiFi package. For a very reasonable daily charge, the WiFi helped greatly keeping us on the right routes with useful information along the way. The car fully loaded we drove the short 45 minutes to our first hotel in Reykjavik the Grand Hótel Reykjavík. Visit our Accommodation Review page for more information about the hotel.
ICELAND DAY 1
Rising early we set out to view the sites of Reykjavík. The first leg of our walking tour was as follows:
Walking along the foreshore we caught a glimpse of the arctic landscape that we would soon be immersed in. The grey arctic waters are framed by large basalt boulders sitting on black volcanic sands. A brisk chill in the air was very effective in waking us up and encouraging us to take a blood pumping pace in the hope of warming our cold extremities.
There are quite a few must-see sites in Reykjavik, the first we would encounter was the famous Solfar – Sun Voyager. Erected in 1990 a sculpture by the Icelandic artist Jón Gunnar Árnason speaks to the Icelandic spirit of adventure, the search for undiscovered territory combined with the dream of hope, freedom and progress. It is a beautiful flowing structure, resembling a Viking longboat. Constructed from stainless steel and standing on a round granite base. It juxtaposes beautifully against the basalt boulders and rolling arctic waves. Not only providing a great spot for photos but getting us inspired for the adventure ahead.
Continuing our walk around the foreshore we headed towards the Harpa (Concert Hall). Opened in 2011 and designed by the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects with artistic direction from Icelandic/Danish artist Olafur Eliasson. The building is a stunning construction of steel framework covered in geometric glass panels. The building plays with the viewer’s eye as if the glass panels are dancing in the Arctic sun. There were many great photo opportunities and was well worth the walk. We wish we had more time to investigate the building. It would be great to see the inside and attend a music or theatre performance.
It was time for breakfast so we strolled through Arnarhóll Hill park past the statue of Ingolf Arnarson. Normally we research our foodie travels heavily. However this morning we decided to throw caution to the wind and walk up Hverfisgata to pick any place that sparked our interest. We stumbled upon Tiu Dropar Cafe. We ordered the Lủxus Brunch which featured: Eggs, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, skyr with muesli, orange, toast & waffle. The Standard Brunch which had: Egg, bacon, potatoes, tomatoes, orange, American pancakes & toast and the Smoked salmon, egg & horseradish Bagel. The food was simple but very tasty. We highly recommend the local Skyr (yogurt). Skyr is a dairy culture that has the consistency of strained yogurt. It is light and mild in flavour and is a regular part of Icelandic food culture. Icelanders often mix it with breakfast cereals or porridge, fruit smoothie and even combine it with fish for a savoury dinner dish. It is low in fat and high in protein and would be a happy addition to our morning routines if it were available outside of Iceland.
With full bellies and energy renewed we continued our walk. No visit to Reykjavik is complete without a visit to Hallgrímskirkja church. Designed in 1937 by Guðjón Samúelsson, who took inspiration from the basalt lava towers prevalent around Iceland’s coast. The tower was constructed and completed in the 1940’s and 1950’s. The remaining wings were constructed in the 1970’s and nave consecrated in the mid-1980’s. For a small admission fee of ISK 900, we headed up a small elevator to the top of the tower. Looking out over Reykjavik we got a great vista of a quaint fishing village that turned into a city. Sure it lacked the same gravitas the other towering centres of commerce in mainland Europe. But Reykjavik, none the less, holds a reputation as the capital that leads Iceland’s unique cultural, social and political landscape. Looking out over Reykjavik it was hard to imagine that the small city, of just over 120,000 people, is so well known globally. It continues to be a major drawcard for international tourists. Is it the volcanoes, the Viking, the recent economic woes or even Bjork? What makes this small fishing village so damn intriguing?
Descending the elevator it was time to stroll down the shopping district. Perhaps we could work up an appetite worthy of the famous Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog stand. After all, it had been well over 1 hour since we had eaten.
Iceland is renowned for hand knitted woollen products and arctic circle appropriate winter and adventure clothing labels like 66o North. Iceland is also a great source for other handcrafted and artisan fair. We walked past metalworks, jewellers, woodworkers and ceramics manufacturers. But of course, a visit to any city with Four Friends would not be complete without stopping by a record store. We found 12 Tónar, which is housed in a small and very Icelandic building. 12 Tónar is not only a record store but also a record label. Since 2003 they have released over 70 albums in a variety of genres. Their albums have been licensed as far and wide as Japan, Korea, and the USA.
That was more than enough window shopping and record digging. It was time to find the dogs! Straddled by construction sites the Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur was still very busy. We lined up for their world famous hot dogs. With simple branding and a modest stand. It is hard to believe that since it opened in 1937 the harbourside establishment has been visited by a wide variety of celebrities and world leaders. From Anthony Bourdain to Bill Clinton and James Hetfield. There are many toppings options, but in our opinion, the only way to go is “the works”. A combination of ketchup, mustard, fried onions, raw onion and remolaði a mayonnaise-based sauce with a sweet relish flavour. The remolaði, in particular, was a sensation, so popular it can be purchased at the international airport before you leave.
Time for some more walking. We headed on the second leg of our walking tour as follows:
We strolled back through the tourist area and past many artisan studios. Heading up towards the Cathedral of Christ the King or Domkirkja Krists Konungs. It was built in 1864 to house the many Catholic priests who had travelled to Iceland since the Reformation. Its traditional design is in stark contrast to the modern and imposing Hallgrímskirkja church. The irony was not lost on us, that two of the historical sites we visited were religious. Especially given that in a recent poll 0% of respondents aged under 25 said they believe in a god and a huge 93.9% stated they support the big bang theory over creationist ideology. We wondered what Iceland’s top ten position in the world’s most irreligious countries would mean for the future of these monuments.
We strolled through some more suburban-style streets, which gave us a nice look at “day to day” Icelanders. Heading down a small hill towards the Tjörnin, we saw the small but prominent lake situated next to the Reykjavik City Hall. The lake is popular with locals and tourist alike. It takes its name from the Norse word tjörn meaning “the lake” or “the pond”. It has become known to locals as stærsta brauðsúpa í heimi which translates to “the world’s largest bread soup.” This fun colloquial nickname has come from the local’s love of feeding the many ducks and geese that take advantage of their generosity.
With weary legs, we made our way back up towards the main entertainment district. We were in need of a drink and knew exactly where we wanted to go.
Few movies have established cult status to the extent that the 1998 Coen Brothers, Big Lebowski has. This is no more evident than the Lebowski Bar. Situated in the middle of Laugavegur. Lebowski Bar is everything an homage to The Big Lebowski should be. The walls are ordained with movie and, of course, bowling-themed memorabilia. Including a full-size bowling lane running from the entrance all the way to the end of the front bar. No Lebowski-themed bar would be complete without a rug. The idea of keeping a floor rug clean in a bar is indeed scary. But the owners of Lebowski Bar have smartly used rugs to line the front of the main bar and yes it really does tie the room together. There is a good selection of local Icelandic beers, while the food menu features mostly American style items. Of course, any chance to reference the movie in the menu has been taken. The bar does not really embody the culture of Iceland but is a must for fans of the movie or any Americans craving a burger.
A few pints and deep fried snacks in our bellies, it was time to walk back to the hotel via a supermarket. Bónus Supermarket is one of, if not the, largest chains in Iceland. It stocks the usual household groceries and home products. Knowing we had a long drive ahead of us we stocked up on roadworthy foods and water. Loaded with groceries we walked back to the hotel.
Reykjavik is a very walkable city. Many of the tourist, shopping and entertainment areas are very centralised. Some small rolling hills can require a little more effort, but on the whole, public transit and a car are avoidable within the central district.
We took advantage of a quick rest and recoup break at our hotel before we prepared ourselves for a traditional Viking meal.
Fjörugarðurinn the Viking restaurant and hotel is situated south of Reykjavik on Strandgata, in Hafnarfjörður. Open for lunch and dinner every day, they hold on to a Viking inspired way of life and cuisine. Attempting to invoke the feel of a Viking longhouse and keep a functional restaurant is a challenge. But we think they have done a good job, be it a little touristy. We sampled the: Fish soup “a la maison”, Lobster soup with grilled lobster Tails and Viking Starter platter with shark, dried haddock, herring, rye bread, assorted whey pickled food (Thorri food) and taste of Black death (Brennivin).
No trip to Iceland would be complete without tasting Brennivin. It is an unsweetened clear schnapps with a distinct flavour of caraway and herbal notes. It is a very popular Icelandic liquor, often drunk as part of a celebration accompanied with the nordic salute Skál. Or as part of the mid-winter feast of Þorrablót.
Another flavour that must be tried, but many shy away from is Hákarl. One of the national dishes of Iceland it is an acquired taste, to say the least. Consisting of Greenland Shark or the meat of other large arctic shark breeds, it is cured in a very particular fermentation process. Due to the high levels of urea and trimethylamine oxide present in the shark’s flesh, the curing process is required to make it edible and nontoxic. The preparation involves burying a gutted shark in a gravelly sand lined pit and covering it with stones. It is allowed to ferment for 6 to 12 weeks depending on the climate and season. The stones slowly push all the fluids out of the meat and the toxins slowly decay. Once the fermentation is complete the shark is removed, cut into slabs and hung to dry for several months. The meat is then cut into small cubes for consumption by brave Vikings. Our Four Friends chief food daredevil Anthony took on the challenge with excitement and vigour. He found the meat to be slightly fishy and very chewy, sort of like a fishy chicken tendon. But in no way as offensive as he had been lead to believe. To the extent that he stated, he would happily eat another chunk if offered. Take that review with a grain of salt, however, we have seen him eat things that would have most people running in the opposite direction.
Our main courses featured braised lamb shanks and some nice local fish dishes. We finished the meal with Skyr, blueberries and sorbs and a nice slice of apple pie with ice cream and whipped cream. Although it would not be the most impressive culinary experience on our trip, it none the less succeeded in achieving the Viking feel and left us very full and satisfied.
The drive back to the hotel had us all ready for bed and the adventure that would come on the following day.
ICELAND DAY 3
We rose early and headed to the hotel buffet. The selection was very standard for a hotel of its style. With the notable offerings of the tasty Skyr and fresh fruit and some tasty blood sausage bites for the meat inclined.
We had a big drive ahead of us. We aimed to hit all the Golden Circle sites in one day and finish at our next hotel in the heart of southeastern Iceland. With our coordinates programmed into the GPS and the WiFi pinging google sites for more tourist info, we headed to our first stop Kerið.
The tour was as follows:
Kerið is a volcanic crater lake in the Grimsnes area, a 50min drive from Reykjavik. It is a shallow lake no more than 14 metres deep (depending on rainfall). The steep walls are lined with a mixture of red and black scoria and covered in moss and lichen which take advantage of the minerals contained in the rock. The small entry fee of ISK 400 was well worth the investment. We climbed to the top of the Caldera and all the way down to the edge of the lake. Resulting in some great photo opportunities.
Next, we headed off to Geysir. 45min from Kerið, Geysir is a thermal geological site featuring some of Iceland’s most famous Geysers. The name Geyser itself is taken from the Icelandic term geysa “to gush.” A hot spring spouting was quite a sight to see. Although The Great Geysir infrequently erupts its little brother Strokkur which is 50 metres south of it erupts every 5-15 minutes. Many photos and videos online, featuring the eruptions at Geysir, are mislabeled as Geysir. We will not make that mistake. It was absolutely Strokkur that we saw and it was an experience none the less. The Geysir site is very well set up for tourists and bus tours. It is obvious that the resurrection of the Icelandic economy post the 2008 meltdown is very invested in the tourism industry.
We piled back in the car and headed to the next site. After a short 15min drive, we arrived in Gullfoss. The Golden Waterfall, or by its Icelandic name Gullfoss, is one of the largest and most spectacular waterfalls in Iceland. Water plummets 32 meters down two steps into a canyon with walls towering 70 metres. We were very lucky to have some winter ice and snow frosting adding to the rugged aesthetic. Although a little wet underfoot, it was well worth the hike to all the lookouts and photo opportunities. Aside from the obvious awe inspired by the power of nature, Gullfoss has another story to tell. In 1907 an English investor attempted to buy the falls from a local farmer. His offer was rejected, but a lease agreement was set up. However, when the farmer’ s daughter Sigriður Tómasdóttir heard of the plans to dam the site she was horrified. Using her personal savings she hired a Reykjavik lawyer to challenge the rental contract. Through many years of legal struggles and political wrangling, the site was kept in its natural state. It was not totally safe until 1940 when the adopted son of Sigriður acquired the falls from his grandfather and sold it to the Icelandic government who protected it and finally designated it as a nature reserve in 1979. Sigriður Tómasdóttir’s work to preserve the falls brought the Icelandic people’s attention to the environmental movement and she is often referred to as Iceland’s first environmentalist.
With one more stop before our next hotel, we headed towards Þingvellir but not before an impromptu stop to see and pet some of the local Icelandic Horses.
The Icelandic Horse is a breed unique to Iceland. They are a small, at time pony-sized, horse. They have a long history of use in sheep herding work and are very popular internationally with them exported worldwide. The Icelandic government has legislated that no other horse breed can be imported into Iceland. They are a very cute horse with large majestic manes, flowing tails, and often striking blue eyes. Most are bred for the international export market, but quite a few are used as draft animals for farming and some even bred for the meat market.
Þingvellir, or Thingvellir as it is anglicised, is just over a 1-hour drive from Gullfoss. Þingvellir has had a place in Icelandic culture since AD 874 when it became the first permanent Norwegian settlement. As the various settlements spread all over the south of Iceland, the social and political trials and tribulations grew with them. In AD 930 it was chosen to host The Alþingi (assembly) because of its proximity to various settlements. Making Þingvellir the supreme legislative and judicial authority in Iceland until 1271. Þingvellir is also notable for its geological nature as a rift valley. It’s striking visual forms are created by the divergent North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Basalt pillars are awe inspiring and an obvious choice for many film locations over the years. Þingvellir has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site on cultural criteria. But it is expected to also qualify on geographical criteria in the very near future.
A short 30-minute drive to our next hotel had us skirting the Þingvallavatn lake. We looked forward to a chance to rest in a geothermal spa. We arrived at ION Luxury Adventure Hotel, checked in and headed straight to their outdoor spa bath. A full review can be read on the accommodation page on this site. Most notable was the Silfra Restaurant and Northern Lights Bar. The cocktails in the Bar were outstanding and the view was stunning. The Silfra degustation tasting menu was world class and featured some of the best fish and pork belly the Friends have ever eaten. Well worth the 5-star price.
We highly recommend a self-drive option for the golden circle. Seeing people being rushed on and off buses, made our relaxed journey and self-guidance via GPS and WiFi seem like a winning formula.
Our Icelanic adventure continues. Click here to READ PART 2
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