(The photo captions still aren’t working, but the photo order matches the narrative this time! If you’ve subscribed by email or RSS, you’ll have to visit our website directly to see the pictures.)
Three churches (kirkja) we visited in Iceland: Hallgrímskirkja, Strandakirkja, Búðarkirkja, and an Olafsvik church.
Hallgrímskirkja – Reykjavik. Built on top of a hill, it’s the largest church in Iceland. Construction began in 1945 and it took 38 years to complete. We used it a lot to orient ourselves and to find our way back to the places we wanted to go. It’s simple and beautiful. A statue of explorer Leif Erikson/Leifur Eriksson is majestically situated on the north side of the grounds.
Strandakirkja – Selvogur. This tiny white church was built by seamen to fulfill their pledge to pay tribute to God if they reached shore alive. Only a few houses remain nearby and it is built between lava fields and the ocean.
Búðarkirkja – Búðir. Built in a lavafield next to the ocean in 1703, reconstructed in 1848. The doors were locked so we could not peek inside. It’s painted a striking Scandinavian black.
Olafsvik church – Olafsvik. I can’t find much info on this, but we liked the geometry, so we took a picture.
Note: The image gallery above is giving me fits, so the photos are out of order and there are no captions. But I figured I had better get something posted! Click the image above and then arrow through the photos. If you’ve subscribed by email, you’ll want to visit the website directly to see the pictures. We’ll get this figured out…
I’m going to write about food first, mostly because I’m hungry at the moment, but also because everyone loves food. Most Icelanders live on the coast, so fish is plentiful. And since pollution is at a minimum here, it’s supposed to be some of the best in the world. Back home, we’d almost never order fish (except sushi), so we definitely made an effort to go outside our comfort zone and order a lot of fish. Even if it was breakfast.
Our first meal, a few hours after we landed, was at Snaps Bistro in Reykjavik. A young passerby recommended it. He said they just opened, and their prices were, “way too inexpensive” considering the quality of the food. It was only 11 a.m., so the kitchen wasn’t open yet, but we ordered coffees and pretended that the Íslenska menu was a word game. Some of the words are similar to English, especially if you try to sound them out (beikon = bacon), others you might be able to make an ballpark guess by contextual clues. Eventually, the waiter brought us the English menu, and we were able to compare our guesses with reality. Tony ordered the smoked salmon with cream cheese, lemon and herbs. I ordered the smoked arctic charr with potatoes and apples. Both were fantastic. Mine was somehow simultaneously delicate and rich. This was our first and best meal.
Another cafe we visited was Cafe Loki, which is adjacent to and has a perfect view of Hallgrímskirkja which is deservedly the landmark of the city. We ordered a smoked trout and cottage cheese bagel and a smoked herring and hardboiled egg sandwich for breakfast. We also got a little pastry called a kleina, which is a type of twisted fried donut that has some spices in the batter, but isn’t frosted or glazed or dusted with anything sweet. Perfect accompaniment for coffee. We also saw Magnus Thór Jonsson, better known as Megas, “Iceland’s Bob Dylan,” in the corner enjoying a sandwich and a beer. We recognized him because we are super knowledgeable about international folk music and anyone who knows anything has heard of him. (Or maybe he was performing on a tv program we watched a few days earlier and a nice Icelander told us all about him… more on that story later.) We did not seek an autograph, but I did pretend to be intensely interested in fiddling with the top of my camera so I could fire off a few shots from the hip to prove our brush with fame.
The night before we left, we visited the Laundromat Cafe, which is located down by the harbor in the shopping/entertainment district, and does have a laundromat in the basement if you need to take care of that while you eat. Despite the practical facilities and the good prices, it’s actually a pretty classy joint. The bar is made of bookshelves and the books are all grouped by the color of their spines. Tony got a great salmon dish with salad greens and beets (I couldn’t resist the grilled ham and cheese sandwich, but you’re not reading this to hear about grilled ham and cheese sandwiches).
Pylsur. I’m not sure if this is only tourist food, or late night after-bar food, or if people eat it on a regular basis. But we wanted to give it a try. More than once. Pylsur is a hotdog made of lamb, and is in natural casings. It’s served on a white toasted bun, and “with everything” means with diced onions, crispy fried onions, sweet ketchup, a very mild and thick brown mustard and a yellowish mayonnaise. We had some at the touristy pylsur shack down by the harbor, at a roadside stand in the middle of nowhere on the south coast and at a gas station. The first ones were the best, but it seems that they’re pretty uniform, at least all over Reykjanes Peninsula.
We also relied on grocery stores for some cheaper food options. We had Skyr, a very tasty low fat, high protein yogurt, every day. I’ve seen it in Iowa City before, but it is much more affordable here. On one of our road trip days, I bought a mini loaf of rúgbrauð (a dense, sweet rye bread), a carton of herbed cream cheese and a packet of salami. I chose the cream cheese because regular cheese was expensive and I didn’t want to buy a whole bottle of condiment. They sustained us well throughout the day we spent driving and hiking through a deserted peninsula to the north.
There were a few surprises along the way. At one grocery store, I saw some cartons of blueberry, strawberry, prune and mixed fruit juice. I examined the label, but wasn’t able to understand any of the words. I asked an older woman who was pushing her cart through the aisle if it was good for drinking and I made a drinking motion with the carton. “Oh yes, very good. Very good one,” she said. So I bought it. Once we were in the car, I cracked it open and took a nice big swig of strawberry pie filling. It was then that I located the only English word on the package (pie). I guess I should have noticed that it was stocked right next to the flour. Tony stopped off at a convenience store shortly after that and returned to the car with some chocolate candy as a consolation for my fruit juice failure. It turned out to be chocolate covered salted black licorice. I don’t like licorice at all, but it was pretty mild and the salt actually made the other two ingredients work together in the flavor profile. We saw black licorice gum and other licorice treats all over. Iceland loves its licorice, it seems.
We also had a bite of hákarl. Chef Anthony Bourdain is quoted as declaring it “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing” he has ever eaten. But that is a story that deserves its own blog post.
I’m finally writing our first real travel blog post now that we’re sitting on our flight from Iceland to Scotland. Iceland was good to us. The weather exceeded our expectations, with just some sporadic light showers and wind. We met some good people, too. It feels nice to sit. We’ve packed a lot into the last several days (and many kilometers on the rental car) and the long daylight hours kept us out so late that we usually went straight to bed instead of writing. I did make a point to sort and process our photos each night, so at least that part is ready to go.
Rather than a long “on Day 1 we went to X and saw Y and then we ate Z” monologue about the Iceland leg, we thought we’d group some (hopefully) interesting categories together. Kind of like those arty movies with the scenes all out of chronological order. Maybe.
Yesterday included a bit of sleep-deprived stress, a first flight delay, a bit of confusing / lacking canadian airport signage, a bit of a check-in computer glitch accompanied by a frazzled attendant, a bit of panicked running with my belt in one hand and a handwritten boarding pass in the other, and of course bit of classic fret and worry about decisions I’ve made about this year.
We touched down in Keflavik at 7am local time after watching the sun rise over tiny bits of ice floating in the Atlantic. The first wi-fi spot available was on the bus that drove us 45 minutes up to Reykjavik. Before even leaving the airport I read through maybe 40 Facebook notes from people who wished us well, shared our blog, and told us they would miss us.
A captivating scene of mountains and moss-covered fields of lava rock kept me from replying with more than a quick Icelandic “bless bless” at the time, but now that we’re all snug in our guest house and the first night is winding down, let me tell you how I really feel…
The confidence I had when I first decided to do all this has been affected by the constant and increasing fight between excitement and anxiety. Even right now as I type this the bewilderment that this is actually happening is more tangible than any confidence about this decision. The only thing more bewildering, which happens to also be the only thing I am truly confident about, is that we have been blessed with the best friends in the world.
The past couple weeks have been a marathon of goodbyes and last meals. We have so many friends who have encouraged us from the very beginning. We have friends who’s excitement for us outshines our own. We have friends who drove from neighboring towns and states to hug us one last time. We have friends who showed up at 6 am wednesday morning to see us off. Friends who passed us like a torch from Iowa City to Cedar Falls to Mason City to the Minneapolis airport. Friends who barely knew us when they invited us to live in their home in January, but hugged us goodbye as family. We love you all so much. We don’t have any other words but thank you.