Travel: Too hot to tölt

Full set of photos

After seeing all the Icelandic horses on my journeys, I’d decided to book myself a horse ride with Íshestar. As a kid, I’d done a few horseback riding summer camps and had always enjoyed it, but it had been ages since I’d ridden. There are a number of horse tour companies, but I decided to go with Íshestar because of their strong animal welfare policy. Wanted to be sure that the horses are well-treated!

The tour company’s minibus picked me up near my guesthouse, and we drove not far out of the city to their stables. I stowed my things and grabbed myself a helmet, before watching a short video providing a brief introduction to how to ride. It wasn’t long before I was introduced to my adorable horse (whose unpronounceable name I cannot remember). I successfully mounted my steed and waited in the paddock while everyone else got settled. They explained that we’d eventually split into two groups, slow and medium, depending on whether we wanted to walk the whole time or if we wanted to speed things up occasionally, but that we’d ride for a bit first so we could get a feel for our horse and how comfortable we are. We eventually set off in single file, basking in sunlight, which finally saw fit to grace us with its presence. It was a truly gorgeous morning for a ride, though very brisk.

riding through a lava field
riding through a lava field

My horse was for the most part responsive to my cues, but she did have a strong desire to snack (which was rather awkward while I was seated in the saddle, as the reins weren’t very long, so I was pulled forward). Nevertheless, I decided I wanted to join the medium-pace group. We walked for the most part, but we did pick up the pace every so often, and I got to experience the tölt gait, which is unique to this breed of horses. It is an ambling gait that is much smoother than a trot, which if you’ve ridden a traditional horse, you will know can be quite bouncy. We made our way through lava fields and were treated to beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. Though I hadn’t realized just how cold it was going to be this morning and found my feet were absolutely freezing. We rode for over an hour, eventually winding our way back to the stables. A lovely way to spend a morning, and I counted it a success that I stayed on my horse. I did manage to dismount in a supremely ungraceful manner (thankfully, I was unassisted so I don’t think anyone bore witness to it). I’d forgotten that one should first remove boot from stirrup before trying swing the leg over, which I remembered mid-swing. I pitched forward and was draped precariously, and rather ungainly, over the front of the saddle. My horse also decided that now was a good time to nibble food on the ground, so I didn’t have anything to push myself back up off of. Thankfully, I eventually managed to right myself and dismount.

view from horseback
view from horseback

After a cup of cocoa in the reception area, I hopped back on the mini-bus and was delivered back to my guesthouse. The weather was cooperating so nicely that I didn’t want to linger too long inside. I was just a short walk away from Reykjavik’s largest church, Hallgrímskirkja, said to be designed to reflect Iceland’s mountains and glaciers. There was a considerable line once inside waiting for the elevator to the top of the tower, so I buckled down and waited. I took the opportunity to admire the church’s interior, which much like its exterior, was austere–beautiful in its simplicity. The elevator only permitted 6 people at a time, but I eventually made it up.

view of Hallgrímskirkja
view of Hallgrímskirkja

The wind had really picked up at that point, making the viewing room (with its open windows) a kind of wind tunnel. So strong was the wind, that I could barely bring my camera up to my face. Thankfully, this effect was attenuated at the other windows of the viewing room, so I was able to glimpse fantastic city views. The city is a riot of colour, with all its brightly-coloured rooftops and painted buildings. I made a few laps of the viewing room, taking in the 360 degree view (I could finally see all the mountains surrounding the city!) before heading back down.

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I had no real fixed plans for the afternoon. There are a host of museums in Reykjavik (including the famed Icelandic Phallological Museum, which I opted to forego), but given that I was relatively short on time, I was happy to just wander the city. I walked through the quiet residential streets near my guesthouse, enjoying the simplicity of the architecture, with its clean lines and bright colours. I also noticed that corrugated metal was used everywhere, from the simplest house to churches and mansions. The roofs were predominantly corrugated metal, and occasionally the siding as well. Apparently, it usage rose in popularity in response to  scarce building materials (i.e., wood), city fires and natural disasters.

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I wound my way down to Tjörnin, a lagoon in the heart of city, which was apparently a hot spot for all things aviary. Hundreds of birds congregated along the shoreline, happily awaiting scraps of bread from an obliging human. I continued my rather aimless journey onto Laugavegur, one of the main shopping streets in the city. The clouds were moving through, bringing with it a brief spurt of snow. I popped into Thorvaldsens Bazar, when I noticed they sold Icelandic wool sweaters (as I’d been keeping an eye out for one) and that all their profits go to support various children’s charities. A deep blue, short-sleeved sweater caught my eye, and after trying it on, I decided to go for it. It turned out the woman helping me had actually knitted the sweater herself (which she was a bit embarrassed to admit). I continued onward up the street and popped into a few more shops, picking up a beautiful wool scarf made by a local company. When I travel, I tend to avoid  knickknack souvenirs (in part because they’re usually just manufactured in China and because I don’t know what to do with them when I get home) and favour supporting local artisans by purchasing art or clothing or something. So I was happy to be able to find a couple things that are representative of Icelandic culture and that I will actually get use out of.

I made my way down to the waterfront to check out Harpa, Reykjavik’s concert hall, which was apparently designed to reflect Iceland’s basalt formations. It’s a gorgeous, modern space–all light and reflections and concrete. It was relatively quiet as I walked around, staring up at the soaring geometric glass panels.

inside Harpa concert hall
inside Harpa concert hall

I eventually headed back to my guesthouse to relax for a couple hours before dinner. I’d made a reservation a restaurant recommended in my guidebook (and happened to be 5 minutes away from where I was staying) called Þrir Frakkar. It was a cozy spot with a nice selection of choices on their menu. I asked my server’s recommendation, and she suggested trying Gratineraður Plokkfiskur (mashed fish), apparently a traditional Icelandic dish. It’s basically flaked white fish mixed with potato and an onion sauce, topped with béarnaise or hollandaise and cheese and baked, and served with dark rye bread. I like all of those things–put them together, and it was definitely super delicious. I later learned that this particular restaurant is one of the best places for that specific dish. I’ll have to try my hand at making it when I get home!

Full of wine and fish, I waddled back to my guesthouse, reminiscing on my adventures of the last week. There’s always a part of me that is sad to leave, wanting to see and do more in a new place, but at the same time a bit eager to get home and back to real life. Despite the mercurial weather and how expensive it is, Iceland was truly beautiful and a wonderful experience. I set out wanting to see landscapes I’d never seen before and feel like I was standing on the edge of the world, peering into the unknown. Mission accomplished! And I know that this will not be the last time I visit. As travel often does, it just whet my appetite for more. Until next time, Iceland.

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