I have an active and romantic imagination so when I thought about this trip prior to our departure I imagined epic views and cozy hotels and blonde people eating weird yet delicious foods, but then in the back of my mind I worried about this being the first trip where I was to drive in another country. To get to some of the most beautiful places on earth Blondie and I were going to have to drive on some of the most unpredictable roadways in the hemisphere and that’s just the sort of thing my overactive mind will focus on. My fears compounded when our tour contact picked up our jet-lagged corpses at Keflavik Airport in the Jeep that we were to use for the next ten days. It was a 2004 Jeep Laredo purchased in New Hampshire and the damned orange engine light was already on. When I questioned our contact about the engine issue he assured us it wasn’t a big deal – someone had stolen the gas cap and the new cap wasn’t Jeep-specific. Neither I nor Blondie felt good about this and the distrust for our vehicle that it spawned weighed heavily on our minds, but who were we to question this large work-hardened man who was nice but yet looked like he could change moods as quickly as the Icelandic weather. Our man drove us up a very foggy Route-41 to our hotel in Hafnarfjordur, which is a southern suburb of Reykjavik, pointing out lava fields and mountains hidden by the fog as well as letting us know the Icelandic mindset on climate change. Along the way he also informed us that we were lucky to have flown in on August 24th because it was the annual Reykjavik Culture Night and half the country was in town to listen to bands and drink and celebrate all things Iceland. However, since it was 6:30 am we were only interested in getting checked in, shaking off the jet lag, and working on ridding ourselves of the smell of Croc-feet that permeated our clothing and airspace on the flight from Minneapolis thanks to a pair of grubby Icelandic children who sat behind us. We needed food, a nap, a shower, and copious amounts of local beer, but first our contact wanted to trace the route we were to take on a map and suggest a dozen or so must-see places along with all of the particulars regarding accommodations, emergencies, and local laws and customs.
Hotel rooms in Iceland, or at least the ones we stayed in, are clean utilitarian affairs often with two twin beds and very little TV options. They are for sleeping and bathing and that is it. Our first room could have been two blankets on the floor in a closet and we would’ve been grateful because even though we love to travel abroad we can get jet lagged driving to Fort Worth. Since we checked into the Hotel Hafnarfjordur early we had to settle for a room in a second building, about a block away, that looked more like a warehouse than a place of comfort, however, the room was spotless and the beds were perfect. After sleeping for a few hours it was time for our first shower. Iceland sits dead center over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian plates are pulling apart therefore making it highly volcanic which in turn provides the island with a nearly unending supply of geothermally heated water used for heating, washing, and bathing. The only downside to this naturally heated water is that it contains a hint of sulfur so when you shower it smells like a juicy rotten-egg fart. This can be a disconcerting smell when one is trying to get clean or brush their teeth with warm water (just don’t) but it does not leave behind a scent and even if it did the entire island population would smell the same way.
The local busses were running free of charge due to the events in Reykjavik so we boarded a packed #1 Bus bound toward the city center. Our dinner reservation wasn’t until later on in the evening so we had a few hours to walk around and make an attempt to stay dry since the rain started the instant we stepped off of the bus. There is a saying about rain in Iceland that it will fall from all but the expected direction and I would say it is a true statement. It did not take us long to seek out a bar that suited our personal need to be around loud people who drink too much. Drinking in Iceland is a complicated subject. Beer was actually outlawed in the country from 1915 until 1989 and overall alcohol is very expensive. A local beer will run about 1,000Kr which comes to about $8.25USD so most people will pre-drink at home then go out later in the evening. Keflavik Airport is one of the only airports I’ve ever seen that has a duty-free shop on the way into the country and many locals and tourists alike picked up gigantic cases of beer and liquor before fetching their luggage and heading home. We did not buy any alcohol at the airport so we did our best to find a happy hour once we got into the city and like a beacon out of the mist The Lebowski Bar called us in and offered two for one beers, the kind of cheesy movie themed interior that makes us very happy, and all of the Creedence we could handle. The place was packed with revelers and the walls were bedecked with Persian rugs and hung above the booths along one wall was an entire bowling alley complete with pins, a ball, and some phantom shoes.
For 2,000Kr one can take a chance and spin the wheel behind the bar and win free drinks or just lose 2,000Kr. On both of our visits we were able to share in the winnings with someone lucky enough to land on a strike, which is 10 beers poured immediately and set in front of the winner in the same configuration as a set of bowling pins. Most of the time however people landed on Over The Line, Shomer F__king Shabbos, or Mark It Zero and tried to look like it wasn’t a big deal to lose $20. I wanted to give it a try too but I was restrained by Blondie, who doesn’t go in for such nonsense. That is why we make a good couple, I take everything way too far and she brings us back to an acceptable level of insanity just before we do something really stupid. This trip would test that hypothesis to its fullest.
We ate at a new place near the water called Mar and for the most part it was a pretty good restaurant. They were offering a special beef with chimichurri sauce for Culture Night so we both ordered it and thought it was just ok. We realized then that when one is in the seafood capital of the North Atlantic they should always order the fish or at least the lamb, which is guaranteed local and fresh. The most memorable part of the meal was the price. Like drinking at a bar, eating in restaurants is an expensive affair so we nearly choked when we did the conversion and realized that for what we spent we could eat at the best place in Dallas and have money leftover to buy a round at the bar on the way out. We always had to remind ourselves that Iceland is far away from everywhere and that many things are imported and are therefore expensive as hell. For the rest of the trip we ate as much as we could during the free breakfasts offered by our hotels and bought inexpensive snacks on the road for lunch, such as European Fanta = best thing ever, Paprika Chips = second best thing ever, and some sort of cookies. At night we dined at either the hotel, which was often the only choice in town, or at nearby restaurants.
By the time dinner was over the local fiesta was fully underway and music was blaring from the various stages set up in the area. Even though we did not understand what the musicians were saying or singing we rocked out like the old pros that we are. The weather was wet and cold yet it was still one of the most positive experiences I have ever had. 100,000 people packed the main streets and the city square but it never seemed too crowded or out of control. There was very little police presence, kids ran around freely, and one can walk the streets while drinking a beer – many of the bars and restaurants had makeshift to-go counters outside just for the convenience.
The rains started to get much heavier as the night went on and we did not wear the appropriate clothing for prolonged exposure so we headed back to the hotel before the fireworks. It was really for the best because we beat the rush and we were both insane from travel and needed sleep in order to prepare for our first full day of driving. The night was a great introduction to what Iceland’s people had to offer, and a positive omen for the rest of the trip. We didn’t see any fights or hear an angry word the entire night and everyone that waited on us was far more cheerful than we are used to especially in such busy situations.
Since this post ran a little long I am running it as is rather than tacking on another day. I promise that the pictures and stories will get better. Stay tuned.
© Peter Molgaard and Afield Book, 2012-2013. All Rights Reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of photographs and original content without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used provided that permission is granted and that full and clear credit is given to Peter Molgaard and Afield Book with appropriate and specific direction to the original content. If you would like to use any of the imagery displayed you may send your requests to firstname.lastname@example.org