I’m not going to lie; one of the biggest joys of my job is the opportunity to travel the world. A language development conference in Bilbao meant visiting a new country for me! My flight with KLM was comfortable and perhaps too entertaining (love when airlines have great movies available), and I didn’t end up getting hardly any sleep as a result. My first order of business in Barcelona was getting a SIM card, which thankfully were available in the airport. 15 Euros seem a small price to pay for the ability to Google map my way around town, particularly considering I’ll be renting a car later in my trip.
In an effort to not be completely extravagant, I decided to take public transit into town, which consisted of an airport bus and a metro. Ah Europe, with its ever abundant staircases and never-ending tunnels between stations. Normally, this is not a concern, but when hauling around 50-odd pounds of crap, one gets sweaty right quick. I finally emerged from my underground travels and made my way to the bed and breakfast I’d be staying at. I experienced a momentary panic when no one answered the doorbell (only to realize I’d punched in the wrong address in Google maps), and so I was soon met by my warm and friendly host. It was a charming apartment and beautifully-decorated—with a kind of rustic/chic vibe. My room was small but comfortable and tastefully-furnished, with high ceilings and outfitted with all that I would need. While settling in and getting ready for the day, I made the rather unwelcome discovery that one of my main lenses didn’t work with the camera body I’d brought. This is the first time shooting with the Nikon V2, and I have a vague recollection of discovering many months ago some weird glitch that rendered this lens essentially useless. Berating myself for not having checked things out before I left, I thanked my lucky stars that I still at least had one working lens (fixed focal-length). It is not unfortunately a wide-angle lens, so I’ll be supplementing my shooting with my trusty iPhone.
The advantage of a morning-arriving flight is one still has a half-day, which is enough time to cover some ground but a short enough period so as to ease oneself in to full-time travel mode. I decided that I would walk in the general direction of the Gothic Quarter. I made my way down one of the main thoroughfares and marvelled at the wide, tree-lined streets, where vast, centre portions of the road are devoted to bicycles and pedestrians and smaller outer lanes given to cars. The buildings were beautiful, with ornate wrought-iron balconies and often with stained glass turrets. I meandered my way down through the winding, narrow streets of the Gothic Quarter until I came across Barcelona Cathedral, which dates back to the 14th century.
This gorgeous Gothic cathedral had every thing that I love about cathedrals–soaring pillars, ornate woodwork and beautiful stained glass windows. It also provided a welcome respite from the throngs of tourists. I learned from my host that it was a bank holiday, which is why there were relatively few locals on the streets (though there were certainly plenty of tourists to fill them up). I noticed a queue growing at one side of the cathedral and discovered it was for the elevator up to the rooftop. The roof afforded beautiful views from the hills out to the sea, and so I loitered for a time, drinking it in while bemusedly watching the different selfie methods employed by my fellow tourist. I made my way back down and through the secluded Gothic cloister, where 13 geese are kept. One of the patron saints of Barcelona is Eulalia, a martyred Roman Christian virgin entombed in the cathedral, who was 13 when she was martyred (hence the 13 geese).
From there, I continued my wandering in search of a tapas bar I’d read about, not far from the water, only to discover that they were closed (presumably because of the bank holiday). However, Isla Tortuga, which happened to be next door, was open and so I sidled on up to the bar and ordered me some tapas. Before planning this trip, I knew very little about Spanish food, but made it a point to try a couple Spanish restaurants in Toronto before I left. Of the things I know, cava and croquetas (Spanish croquettes) are some of the best things ever. I am generally a lover of sparking wine, and particularly cava, so I was thrilled to be in cava country. I will often get an amused look at bars in North America when I order sparkling wine, with the bartender often asking if I’m celebrating a special occasion (what, being a Tuesday isn’t enough?), so it’s delightful that I am finally in a city where that is the go-to drink. The mushroom croquetas were super delicious, as were my other tapas.
From there, I decided to seek out a nearby spot in the Gothic Quarter, specializing in gin, called Bar Rubí. I read, much to my joy, that the gin and tonic is an especially popular drink in Barcelona (and my drink of choice outside of sparkling wine). As it was relatively early still, the bar wasn’t busy, and I grabbed a seat, admiring the wealth of gin choices on display. I decided to go with one of the house-made infusions, mango gin and tonic (super delicious). Apparently, it’s customary in Barcelona to serve G&Ts in a a large wine glass–a very large one in my case. I nursed my drink and watched the bar fill up, a good mix of foreigners and locals. After I’d had my fill, I made my way to the metro and took the short ride back to the B&B. I discovered I’d walked 18.5 K steps (12 km) during my half day of meandering, so I figured it might be an idea to save my legs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The clouds had rolled in by the time we got to the hotel last night, so I was pleasantly surprised to find in the morning that we were surrounded by mountains. After a quick hotel breakfast, we piled into our van and headed to our first stop, Ytri Tunga, in search of seals. We did spot a few seals bobbing in the sunrise-dappled water, but my attention was largely focused away from the water. For all my desire the previous day to see mountains, I definitely had the chance to drink them in today. The beach was situated next to a breathtaking range of mountains. Though largely overcast, the cloud cover was high enough to actually see the mountain tops, and the sun was just beginning to peek through in places, shining a spotlight on a few glaciers.
From there, it was a relatively short drive to Búðir, a hamlet on the westernmost tip of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. I was surrounded by stunning vistas, from waterfall-draped mountains to shorelines strewn with chunks of basalt rock. It’s also the site of a charming inn and tiny church–apparently ships and fishing boats had been landing here for hundreds of years. After about 30 minutes of strolling the beaches and drinking in the view, we piled back in the van and headed onwards.
Our next destination was the fishing village Arnarstapi, situated at the foot of Mt. Stapafell and alongside some impressive basalt cliffs. We took the path from the village and followed the coastline, glimpsing striking views including the one below (I dubbed it the Lonely Mountain, which I felt befit my journey).
There were a number of interesting land bridges and holes in the basalt cliffs, where one could peer down into the ocean. Waves would sporadically crash dramatically against the cliff base, usually when my camera was down. Nevertheless, I felt that surge of joy that one gets when traveling, the thrill of seeing a new place and being awe-struck by its beauty.
We eventually wound our way back to the van, where we drove to a nearby cafe for a quick lunch. Quick only because we had a date with a lava tube. Vatnshellir cave was created after an eruption around 8000 years ago and purportedly the entry site that inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Equipped with helmets and flashlights, we met our lava tube guide by what looked like a miniature missile silo but was really the entrance to the cave via a spiral staircase. We learned about the different lava formations that resembled stalagmites and stalactites. The walls glittered with flecks of gold (actually bacteria and basically the only life capable of surviving down there). We descended another spiral staircase into a lower tube, a vast cavern 35m below the surface. Our guide had us turn our lights and electronic equipment off to experience true darkness. It was haunting being in the black, but peaceful. Perhaps peaceful because one doesn’t have to worry about processing stimuli from one of our dominant senses and can just listen to the sounds of dripping water making its way slowly from the surface.
After we’d had our fill of the cave, we headed back to the surface and rejoined the land of the light. It was a relatively short drive to our next destination, Djúpalónssandur Beach. We didn’t go down to the beach right away but instead by a “secret” path along the cliff’s edge. For those willing, it eventually involved some mildly precarious scampering. But it was there, looking out into the mist, that I found the end of the world. Not really, of course, but standing on a lava formation jutting out into the ocean, where one cannot see anything beyond, does make one feel rather dramatic.
From there we made our way down to Djúpalónssandur beach. There was a kind of a beauty to its stark severity, with its black sand and rusted fragments of a long-forgotten shipwreck strewn about. It apparently used to be a major fishing port but has long been uninhabited. I wandered down through the rocks and came across “lifting stones”, a set of smooth, very heavy rocks that were historically used to test fishermen’s strength (weight ranges from 23-154 kg/50-340 lbs). I love the translations of the different names of the stones (“full strength”, “half strength”, “weakling” and “useless”). I was with the English/American group at the time, and one of the guys just had to have a go. Needless to say, he was not successful and, to the amusement of all, split his pants trying!
We eventually headed off to our final stop of the day, the famed Mt. Kirkjufell, which is apparently the most photographed mountain in Iceland. And indeed, when we arrived, there was a line-up of photographers camped out with their tripods (packing some serious hardware that made me feel a little inadequate). As we walked up, one moron had stepped over the rope to set up his gear essentially at the top of the waterfall and was therefore sitting in everyone’s shot (in his bright orange jacket). I commiserated with one of the photographers in the line-up, and he thankfully had the wherewithal to go shout at him to get out of the way. It was a beautiful mountain (I imagine even more so when one can see the top of it). But I was equally struck by the beautiful mountains behind the line of photographers–snow-covered and peeking out through the mist, with Icelandic horses grazing below–I was bemused that they were all so fixated on shooting this one angle, perhaps without noticing or appreciating the beauty behind them.
We drove about halfway back to Reykjavik before stopping at a gas station/diner for a spot of dinner. Night had fallen, and as we continued onward, we gazed hopefully out the car windows, praying for a flicker of light in the sky. But alas, despite spotting a few stars amongst the clouds, it was too overcast to see anything. No Northern Lights for me! I wasn’t terribly disappointed, as that certainly wasn’t my main reason for coming to Iceland. I felt worse for a couple of the girls on the trip, one of whom had saved for years to travel to Iceland and see the Lights. I did have a chance to chat with the folks from the English/American group a bit more. They all met while traveling and continue to travel like crazy (one of them says he travels about 120 days a year). I mentioned there’s a possibility I might be in the UK this year for a conference, and so we exchanged emails with the hope that we’d be able to meet up again. All in all, a very successful day, and certainly my favourite of the trip thus far. Seeing gorgeous landscapes and making new friends–isn’t that what traveling is all about?
I was eager to start out on the second leg of my tour, where I’d be journeying to the west part of Iceland. So eager apparently that I was in the lobby waiting for the pick-up a full hour earlier than the actual pick-up time (I’d mixed up the pick-up time yet again!). I met my new guide, Saga, a Reykjavik local, and the somewhat sadder van we’d be given. Apparently, they had to rent a van, as they were out of their usual mini-buses. This van was more of a traditional style van, and we were squeezing twelve passengers in. Also, for whatever strange reason, the last row of seats had essentially no legroom. Our guide was apologetic and suggested we rotate seats throughout the day. It was largely a new group of travellers, except for the couple from Wales who was with me on the first tour. We had a couple of solo female travellers from China and South Korea and a couple from India, as well as a gregarious group of travellers from the States and England.
The weather was overcast as we drove out of the city. However, we went through a long tunnel and emerged to brilliant sunshine. I’d actually dozed off and was startled awake by sunlight blasting through the windows and gorgeous seaside views. We drove by some truly stunning mountains, and I actually found myself a little disgruntled at not being able to stop and appreciate them. I tried taking a few shots through the car window, but a telephoto lens and moving car don’t work well together.
Our first stop was the village of Reykholt, where we visited the famous Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson’s outdoor bath. I admit I was a bit underwhelmed, likely because my mind was still on those sun-drenched mountains we’d passed. I tried not to fixate on it and just considered it as giving me a preview for when I come back. Our next stop was a set of waterfalls, Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. Hraunfossar is an interesting series of waterfalls that actually stream out from below a lava field. There were bridges and viewing platforms to get a look at the different waterfalls, and I happily explored the area. The sun wasn’t out anymore, though it peeked out occasionally, but it was dry and bright (which equaled a happy traveller).
From there, we made the relatively short drive over to Deildartunguhver, the most powerful hot spring in Europe, providing hot water and central heating for the area. However, the real star of this location turned out to be the most adorable, very chubby dog that had seemed to have taken up residence in the parking lot. He happily ran out to greet every car and bus that entered the lot–I imagine in hopes of food and/or rubs (I was happy to provide the latter). As we pulled out of the lot, I saw him sitting patiently in front of a (closed) car door, waiting for the driver to get out. What a determined cutie!
After a gas station pit stop for food, we continued onward, pulling over to visit with some sweet Icelandic horses grazing near the road. I was amazed that they just sauntered on over to us, happy to receive our attention and rubs. Saga was quick to correct anyone who called them ponies–they are in fact full-grown horses! They’ve got full, rockstar manes and are hardy animals, capable of surviving Icelandic winters (typically harsher than the one I was experiencing). In an attempt to keep the breed pure and prevent disease, no other horse breeds are allowed into Iceland, and any horses exported are not permitted to return.
Our final scheduled stop was the Gerðuberg basalt columns, which looked like the wall of a medieval fortress. The clouds had rolled in at this point, so it was a wall of grey on grey. Some of the group decided to explore and climb the rocks, while I chose to stay a bit apart and just soak in the silence. We were so far from anything else at this point that there were really no sounds–quite a meditative feeling.
When everyone finally gathered back in the van, Saga mentioned that we still had a bit of light left in the day and asked whether we’d be interested in seeing a secret spot of hers. We were all game, and so drove not far to our mystery site. We hiked about 15 minutes, through a gorgeous, moss-covered lava field, an ethereal layer of clouds shrouding the tops of the mountains. There was a small spring that Saga took us to Rauðamelsölkelda, a natural mineral spring containing carbonic acid (so it bubbles). I had a taste of the water, and it was light and refreshing. We made our way over to a waterfall, tucked between walls of rock. Much scampering and light rock climbing ensued, as many of us wanted to get in closer to the falls. On our walk back to the van, we noticed a few small patches of snow on the ground, where several people jokingly posed to show evidence of the snowy, wintery Iceland they’d expected to visit. I will say that I am definitely a fan of “secret” spots. Off the beaten path, they tend to give a glimpse of a place not typically seen on the usual tourist routes.
It was a relatively short drive to our hotel for the night, Hotel Rjúkandi. It was definitely one of the nicest places we’d stayed on the tour thus far, with stylish, well-appointed rooms. Prior to dinner, I wandered into the little café/bar area and found the English/American group of travellers enjoying pre-dinner drinks. It was in fact a bottle of rum that one of them had bought at the duty-free on the way into Iceland (definitely something to consider doing for next time), which the proprietor didn’t seem to mind them drinking. I opted to sample some Reykjavik cucumber gin (delicious!). At dinner, I couldn’t pass up trying some medium-rare Icelandic lamb, one of the country’s specialties, served with mashed potatoes (which may have also been a motivating factor). A super tasty meal, made better by lively company. The English/American group were a talkative and entertaining bunch, and we covered a range of topics, everything from traveling the Incan trail to American politics. They generously shared their rum with everyone, and we’d finished the bottle by the end of the evening.
We started out before the sun was up (which isn’t terribly early I suppose when sunrise is close to 9:30) and made the relatively short drive to Glacier Guides. The clouds had lifted enough to reveal a gorgeous range of mountains, draped in rugged glaciers, in shades of blue in the morning light. We were fitted for crampons and given a helmet and an ice axe before piling into a large bus to be driven to Falljökull (pronounced something like “fat yoghurt”), which translates to “falling glacier”. We hiked for about 30 minutes to the foot of the glacier, where our guide explained how to strap on and use our crampons.
It was definitely a bit disconcerting taking the initial icy steps onto the glacier. I will say those crampons are an amazing invention, allowing us to walk across ice with relative ease, admittedly with a bit of an odd gait. Our guide entertained us on our hike with facts about glaciers, such as the fact they’re actually formed from compacted snow (something like 30 feet of snow compresses into about an inch of glacial ice) and they move something like 8 inches a day. We hiked up ice stairs that had been carved into the glacier, with the help of rope railings strung along, and eventually stood atop metres and metres of ice, looking out at the lava fields we had just hiked through. It was a sobering thought, as our guide reminded us, that in about 5 years, the ice we were standing on will no longer exist.
We made our way across the glacier and down into a two-level cave below the glacier. These ice caves are only accessible during the winter, as they flood during the summer. The ice was a luminous turquoise (that colour for the same reason that the ocean appears blue) and riddled with bubbles that had been trapped as the snow and ice were compacted. This particular cave was unique because it is actually at the intersection of two glaciers. There’s a spot in the cave where you can put your hand on two separate glaciers!
From the ice cave, we continued upward on the glacier in the rain, eventually stopping at a rivulet of water, where people could fill up their water bottle and enjoy that clean, glacial water. We admired what looked like great waves frozen in time–these soaring, rippled sculptures of ice. Our guide stuck his ice axe partially up one wall of ice and said if people wanted to pretend they were ice climbing for photos, they could (I chose not to partake). We trekked back down the glacier, stopping briefly to say hello to the two resident ravens on the glacier (one of which was named Odin). It’s funny that one is initially very careful when glacier walking, making sure to dig the crampons into the ice, but you eventually forget the craziness of what you’re walking on.
We made our way back to the bus and met up with François again to continue on with our tour and find some lunch. All in all, a morning well-spent–I’d never walked on a glacier before or really even seen one up close. It is definitely a good way to put yourself into perspective, to feel incredibly small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. We stopped at a gas station diner to grab food for the road, and I enjoyed a lamb burger, which didn’t taste significantly different from a regular burger.
At this point, the rain and wind had really kicked up. We counted ourselves lucky to have had the weather we had on the glacier. Despite the light rain, it could have been much worse. Per the request of one of our group, we briefly stopped to see the rain-swept moss-covered lava field, dating back to the 700s, that we had driven through the day before. After a thousand years, all that has been able to grow is moss. I understand why François would so strongly encourage us to not stray from the path and trod on the flora. Consider how long it takes for even just moss to grow!
We then drove to our final stop of the tour, Skógafoss, one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. Thankfully, the rain had slackened when we arrived, so we only had the spray from the waterfall to contend with. François had recommended going to the top of the waterfall, and so several of us made the steep climb up a seemingly never-ending set of stairs (panting and cursing our guide as we went). Evidently, my climbing 8 flights of stairs twice a day to walk Gizmo had not done much for my stair-climbing stamina. In the end, we peered down at the waterfall from above and took in the view of the nearby mountain before making our way back down.
From there, it was a 2-hour drive back to Reykjavik. The darkening skies and warm mini-bus meant many of us dozed off on the journey back. François had mentioned to me that morning that this was the least favourite part of the trip, as everyone would fall asleep while he drove. I didn’t feel bad though, as this time he was kept company by the French contingent (needless to say, I overheard a lot of French on this tour). Since this was concluding the first part of a 5-day tour, Arctic Adventures had arranged my accommodations for the evening. I checked-in to Foss Hotel, located near the centre of town, popping out briefly to get groceries (cheese/crackers) and have a bite to eat before calling it a night.
The rain had slackened overnight, and we were treated to the faintest hints of clear skies. After a quick breakfast from the hotel buffet (I heavily favoured the cheese options), we piled into our minibus and made the short drive down to the Reynisfjara beach to watch the sunrise. Part of the reason I wanted to visit Iceland was I wanted to see places unlike anything I’d seen before. This was one of those places.
Soaring basalt columns–symmetrical hexagonal pillars that looked like man-made sculptures–rose up from the beach, born out of basaltic lava cooling following a volcanic eruption. It definitely felt like I’d stumbled onto a scene out of Lord of the Rings, staring up at Isengard. I half-expected to see Saruman peering down at me. We were there relatively early, so there weren’t too many people, with the exception of a tour group of teenagers, who unfortunately had decided that the basalt columns made an excellent jungle gym. Nevertheless, we spent about 45 minutes admiring the sea stacks and rugged cliffs before heading out.
I’d spotted a beautifully-situated church on our drive to the beach, which thankfully someone else in the group (who was a bit of a photographer) had also noticed and requested to stop at. The clouds were hanging low, curling around the tops of the surrounding hills, to great eerie effect.
We drove through rugged, barren hills to the nearby town of Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland for a quick pit stop, first at another church overlooking the town and the ocean and then at a gas station. François recommended checking out the Icelandic wool factory, so I took a peek. My leather gloves were still damp from my intimate encounter with a waterfall the day before, which made for cold, clammy hands, so I bought myself a waterproof pair of Icewear gloves. Warm fingers are just heavenly!
Since we were making good time, François decided to take us to a “secret” spot, not normally on the tour itinerary, about an hour away from Vik. Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, whose name is basically unpronounceable, was a gorgeous place. There were a few other tourists, but relatively quiet compared to other places we’d visited. We hiked up the tourist path running parallel to the canyon, peering out at at look-out points at the Fjaðrá river 100 metres below. There was a feeling of stillness there, a place relatively untouched by humans. It was calming to stand on a cliff’s edge and hear nothing but the sound of rushing water. Well, occasionally interrupted by the whir of a drone. I’d watched enough travel videos on YouTube to know that drones were becoming increasingly common, but this was the first time I’d encountered one on my travels. Even someone from my own tour group broke out their drone.
We continued onwards, making a brief stop in Hof to see a turf church (apparently it was a day for churches). We drove past mountains and glaciers shrouded in cloud and battered by rain, including what François referred to as the “Hollywood” glacier. The locals call it that because of all the movies that have been shot there (Batman Begins, Interstellar, etc.). It wasn’t long before we were pulling into the parking lot next to our day’s final destination, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. The rain had started up again, but I didn’t care because this place was magical, unlike anything I’d seen before. Ethereal blue icebergs float silently in the water, and chunks of ice were strewn on the black sand shore.
Normally, the lake overlooks the Vätnajokull glacier, but the cloud cover did an excellent job of obscuring it. Despite no glacier, I was glad to see the ice (apparently, our guide had taken tourists a couple of weeks before and there were no icebergs at all). In addition to the chunks of ice, there were also a congregation of seals floating in the water–all you could see were their adorable heads bobbing and staring at us curiously. While we were watching the seals watch us, we heard a low, rumbling. We watched in awe as icebergs not far out into the water crashed and tumbled over each other. Mother nature’s power at work!
Per the recommendation of our guide, I wandered away from the lake under a bridge and found another black beach scattered with chunks of ice. Despite the overcast skies and drizzle, I was amazed that some of the ice chunks seemed to glow.
It was a relatively short drive to our hotel for the evening, and we ate as a group together again (though the French contingent had their own table, as there wasn’t a table big enough for all of us). I continued my seafood trend and had some delicious arctic char and chatted more with our guide. I learned a little more about Icelandic culture. Iceland has no standing army and apparently, search and rescue services are largely voluntary (you can read an interesting New Yorker article about it here). Because the population is so small, it simply isn’t feasible to maintain a force of rescuers, so people actually volunteer their time and equipment and are highly-regarded by their countrymen. I found it cheering, particularly in this day and age, to learn that voluntary service (rescuing others in often times dangerous conditions) is such an important part of their culture.
I had rather foolishly spent the previous night in a YouTube spiral of viewing insanity and so had went to bed really late. For whatever reason, the five alarms I’d set also conspired against me and decided not to go off, so I woke up at 9 am. This would not normally be problematic when on vacation except the pick-up for the 5-day tour I’d booked was 8 am. Panicked, I threw my things together and ran the block to the pick-up site, trying to figure out how to call the company. Now, my original email had indicated that my pick-up time was 9 am, and a second confirmation had said 8 am. Miraculously, after waiting 10 minutes, the Arctic Adventures minibus came into view. The pick-up time had in fact been 8 am, but thankfully they assumed I might have been confused by the two times and had circled back around to see if I was there.
I’m not normally a tour person (in fact, I’ve never taken a multi-day tour). I’d booked a tour with Arctic Adventures in large part because I assumed it would be snowy and icy, and I wasn’t comfortable driving on my own in wintery weather conditions. However, it had been a shockingly warm winter in Iceland, and there wasn’t a snowflake to be found. Ah well! Our guide was François, a Belgian living in Iceland. We had a relatively eclectic mix of folk, 14 including myself, with pairs from Quebec, France, the US, China, and Wales. We were soon driving out of town, through the drizzly countryside, starting on the Golden Circle portion of the trip. I was undaunted by the weather and just eager to get my travel on—it’s felt like a lifetime since I’d really travelled.
Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, a UNESCO world heritage site. It lies in a rift valley that marks the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It was also the site of the national parliament of Iceland from 930 AD until the 18th century (hence its heritage status).
From there, we piled back in and drove to the Haukadalur valley geothermal area. Fun linguistic fact: geyser is an Icelandic word! Geysir, from which we get our word I believe, is actually currently dormant. Its neighbour, Strokkur, thankfully erupts every 5-10 minutes. I will say that even though you know it’s coming, staring at a smoking hole in the ground through a camera lens, it still gives you a bit of a start.
After an expensive but relatively tasty cheeseburger, we made the short drive to Gulfoss (“Golden Waterfall”)—a seriously impressive waterfall. The light rain in combination with the spray from the waterfall was making photo-taking a serious challenge. I was certainly glad to have brought Dad’s plastic camera bag with me, which is basically a plastic bag with a hole for a lens (and a drawstring to keep it in place), as I was able to keep the camera body from getting seriously wet. Though, nothing can really prevent spray covering the front of the lens. Who would’ve thought that a lens covered in water would be difficult to shoot through?
Our last stop was Seljalandsfoss, a tall waterfall you can actually walk all the way behind. François first took us on a short walk, which involved wading through a shallow creek to get into narrow cavern which we shared with a waterfall. It was a crazy sensation to feel the power of a waterfall right next to you. Also, a very wet sensation. We headed over to the main waterfall and scampered around the rocks to stand behind it. It was wet and cold, and I was absolutely soaked at this point, but it was awesome (I happened to not be wearing my waterproof pants at the time, and discovered my parka and snow boots aren’t terribly waterproof). Thankfully, it was the last stop before the hotel.
Thankfully, I had a chance to shower and warm-up before dinner. As we were in a country hotel away from town, we ate at the hotel restaurant, and François made sure that we all had dinner together. I will say that a big plus for tour travel is having other people to talk to, especially at a meal. I have no qualms about eating alone, but it is always preferable to have a side of conversation with your entree. I sat next to François and learned about his background and living in Iceland. He was very warm and earnest, with a deep-seated respect for nature and its raw wildness (e.g., he would remind us to not climb over ropes that lined the paths in order to protect the flora of the area). He loves the laid-back nature of Iceland–apparently people really don’t make plans here, beyond a few days ahead. For instance, it would be an oddity to plan a party and send out Facebook invites a month in advance, as friends typically just show up to see if you want to hang out. As an obsessive planner, I think incorporating a pinch of Icelandic spontaneity into my life might be a good idea.
After a rather challenging 2016, one of my resolutions in the new year was to make myself happy, and that meant getting back to traveling again. A sale on Icelandair flights was the catalyst I needed for me to rather impulsively decide to take a trip to a wild new place. Iceland had always been in the back of my mind as a place that would be fun to see but never somewhere I thought I’d get to for awhile.
The evening 5-hour flight was relaxed, with blankets, a nice touch screen display and even a “northern lights” display on the cabin ceiling before takeoff (spoiler alert: these were the only northern lights I’d see). Flights from North America tend to get in around 6 am, and so I hopped on a bus and headed to the Blue Lagoon, the famed geothermal hot spring between the airport and Reykjavik. It was a well-oiled machine, complete with fancy plastic electronic wristbands that opens your locker and make purchases while in the lagoon. Sinking into the 38 C (100 F) lagoon after scurrying from the main building in the rain was definitely sublime. The sun had not yet risen, so I bobbed around in the milky waters in the cool darkness. Part of admission includes a series of silica and algae mud masks, which you apply yourself, and a drink. So I rather bemusedly drank prosecco at 10 am and enjoyed the rain on my face and the hopefully rejuvenating water. The combination of my 3-hour night’s sleep and morning wine made me fairly sleepy. That and I was thoroughly prunified, so I hopped on the bus to continue on to Reykjavik.
I got off in the city centre and headed uphill to Arcturus Guesthouse. A small but charming room with a shared bathroom (which had to be the largest bathroom I’d ever seen). I fell asleep almost immediately and didn’t wake up for several hours. I eventually got my butt in gear and headed out to explore the town a bit. I made my way down to Baejarins Beztu Pylsur for a famed Icelandic hot dog, with raw and fried onions, mustard and remoulade. Delicious! This stand is particularly famous apparently for not only its hot dogs but its patrons, including Bill Clinton (though he only wanted mustard—missing out).
I strolled down the rain-soaked Laugavegar, one of the main shopping streets in town, peeking into cute shops. The brightly-coloured buildings and unadorned aesthetic (except for murals and graffiti) reminded me of other Nordic destinations, like Copenhagen and Stockholm, but with a small-town feel, which isn’t surprisingly considering the population of Reykjavik is smaller than the suburb I grew up in (less than two hundred thousand). I eventually stopped into Bravó, a laid-back bar with a very Bohemian feel, for a glass of wine and WiFi. I’d bought a SIM card on the flight over and was still trying to get it working (later Googling led me to figure it out).
I eventually wandered down to Kex Hostel for dinner. Kex apparently is the hip hostel in town for young back-packers but also happens to have a tasty restaurant, Saemundur. It definitely had a hipster vibe to it, with its copper bar, exposed brick and do-it-yourself feel. I nursed my white wine (alcohol, much like everything else, is prohibitively expensive in Iceland) and thoroughly enjoyed my fried ling, pickled lemons and almonds, before making the walk back to my guesthouse for the night.
Last but not least: Amsterdam! With just one weekend left in my trip, I knew it had to be spent in Amsterdam. Thankfully, it’s only about an hour and a half train ride from Nijmegen, so after morning subject-running, I was soon rolling into the city. One of the things I’ve loved about the Netherlands is the universal transit pass (OV chipkaart), which allows you access to trains, buses, and trams all over the country. You just need to load it with money. It was an easy tram ride to the AirBnB, and I managed to just escape inside as the rain started torrentially downpouring. Once it had subsided, I took a walk over to the Foodhallen, an indoor food market, where I bee-lined for the bitterballen vendor and feasted on veal, goat cheese, truffle and even satay flavoured bitterballen. Delicious!
The clouds were starting to part as the sun set over the city. I hopped on a tram and made my way down to the House of Bols, purportedly the oldest distillery brand in the world. The tour was self-guided through a very glossy, interactive exhibit of the history and distillation of jenever, a traditional Dutch liquor and the precursor to gin. At the end of the tour, you received a cocktail of your choice and a couple tasting shots of jenever. My cocktail, a chocolate-honey mixture, was actually super tasty. I sampled the jonge jenever, called “young” because of its use of more modern distilling techniques, as well as a barrel-aged jenever. They were both rather potent (mind you I don’t tend to drink a lot of liquor straight up), but I did prefer the jonge jenever as it had a cleaner taste. I picked up a bottle of the barrel-aged for David, since its potency reminded me a bit of whisky which I figured he’d appreciate before heading out.
Just across the street was the Van Gogh Museum, which on Friday nights remains open until 10 pm. It’s so common for things to close at 5 or 6 pm, that it’s great when something stays open later. Nevertheless, the line was still quite long (and unfortunately outside in the blustery cold). My museumkaart unfortunately did not allow me to jump the line at this particular museum. Once I got inside, the lines were super long for the coat check, so I opted to carry my purchases around the museum. Photography wasn’t permitted, so I contented myself with taking in the collection. I’ve always been a fan of Van Gogh–his thick use of paint lending his work an almost sculptural quality. I saw his Almond Blossom painting, which hangs in the dining room, as well as his lilies and sunflowers. It’s great to see so many works by the same artist on display. You can really get an appreciation for the artist’s range, both of subject matter and techniques. They also had an interesting exhibition comparing the works of Edvard Munch and Van Gogh, where they would display thematically or stylistically related works side by side. In many cases, they were surprisingly similar. Ultimately, I preferred Van Gogh’s often glossier, textured paintings over Munch’s more matte work. After I’d had my fill, I did a quick search of the surrounding restaurants and decided to give The Seafood Bar a try. It seemed to be a popular spot, as it was bustling and full of folk (even had to wait for a seat at the bar). I started with a salad with smoked salmon and horseradish and, because I wanted to sample something else, their lobster salad sandwich. The nice thing about sitting at bars is that it’s often where solo travelers/diners sit, so I ended up striking up a conversation with the nice gentleman sitting next to me, chatting about travel, linguistics and fish.
The next morning, I ventured over to the Rijksmuseum and met up with Susanne, who hadn’t visited the museum in a long time. We grabbed a quick breakfast in the museum café and got her tickets (with surprisingly no line). We wandered through the collection, sticking mostly to works after the 1600s, as we’re both not big fans of paintings from the earlier centuries. Some of Rembrandt’s most famous works were featured, including The Night Watch, which were fairly heavily trafficked by tour groups.
After we’d satisfied our cultural inclinations for the morning, we headed off in search of lunch. Susanne took me through De Negev Straatjes (the nine little streets), a neighbourhood with small shops, galleries and restaurants interwoven with the canals. I was so tickled by the narrow, often very slanted buildings. Things just seemed to be falling into each other, holding each other up. We chanced across Van Harte, a tasty looking eatery in a stylish space. The weather was blustery and cold (very Chicago-like, so I’m well-prepared), so it was nice to warm up with a drink and sandwich. From there, we wandered up through the Jordaan district, an upscale neighbourhood which Susanne noted many locals consider to be a reflection of a more real Amsterdam (relative to the more tourist-trafficked areas near the city center).
As Susanne had a prior evening engagement, I saw her off at the train station, a gorgeous building in its own right. I ended up booking an evening canal cruise, so I’d have something to do in the evening. I wandered my way back down Damrak, the city’s main thoroughfare lined with major brands and tourist shops. I stopped in at De Drie Fleschjes, an historic jenever tasting house for a tulip glass of it. I was told that traditional Dutch establishments like this one always have sand on the floor (to keep things clean apparently), no music and hardboiled eggs on the bar as snacks.
I continued my wanderings and ended up walking so far that I came across the Nationale Opera and Ballet theatre. I had discovered last week that the Dutch National Ballet was putting on Giselle and had decided to seize the opportunity and grab one of the last tickets. I picked up my ticket and decided to head back to the apartment for a bit. While waiting for the tram, I did see the aftermath of a scooter-pedestrian collision. Thankfully, police and ambulance were quick to respond, but it was a sobering reminder of how easy it could be to get hit. Bike lanes also permit scooters, which I’ve never really liked since they typically move so much faster, so they can be easy to miss.
It had unfortunately started to rain when I headed back out to grab dinner at Haesje Claes, a traditional Dutch restaurant, with wood-paneled dining rooms and an old-timey feel. There seemed to be a mixture of locals and tourists. I started with a goat cheese salad and ordered chicken liver with mashed potatoes and bacon as a main (I’ve come to realize that starters here are really not meant for one person, as they are quite sizable). The American couple next to me started chatting with me, and we had a pleasant conversation about travel and my work. I must have been particularly charming because as were getting our checks, I discovered they paid for my meal! The kindness of relative strangers never ceases to amaze me. I thanked them profusely but had to run to catch my canal tour. The rain-streaked windows of the tour boat did make photo-taking impossible, so I just sat, sipping my mojitos (it was a cocktail cruise) and enjoying the view. One of the great perks of touring the canals on the water is the glimpse into house-boating life (apparently there are around 2500 house boats in Amsterdam), peeking into their often gorgeously-appointed water-bound homes.
The next morning, I had a scrumptious breakfast at Gartine, a tiny, sweet little eatery that Susanne and I had tried to get a reservation for the previous day but had been all full up. What better way to start one’s morning than with eggs benedict and smoked salmon? It was just a short but rainy walk up Dam Square, which the Royal Palace of Amsterdam overlooks. Originally built as a city hall in the 17th century, it eventually housed King Louis Napoleon (the first king of the Netherlands). I’m a sucker for gorgeously appointed rooms and lavish furnishings, so the palace did me well. Most impressive was the Citizen’s Hall, with its soaring ceiling and ornate carvings.
They were already starting to set up for the Sinterklaas parade in Dam Square. His helpers, Zwarte Pieten, are typically portrayed in blackface, a matter of some controversy. But there were plenty of them wandering about, handing out candy to children and repelling down buildings. I had toyed with staying to watch some of the parade, but ultimately it was a bit too cold and windy for me to stick around for a glimpse of Sinterklaas. I hopped on the metro, which has a stop right next to the Nationale Opera and Ballet theatre. I still had an hour to kill, so I stopped in to Café Langereis across the street. I lingered over my prosecco and sizable cheese plate, watching the busy traffic controllers directing a steady stream of cars and bikes. Various road closures, no doubt because of the parade, made things particularly hectic.
I hopped over to the theatre to see the matinee showing of Giselle, their last show of the run. It was a beautiful performance–gorgeous and melancholic. The Wilis (spirits of women who were jilted by their lovers) were particularly haunting, row upon row of women clad in white romantic tutus and long veils. (see them here on the company’s website), bourrée-ing eerily across the stage. There’s nothing like watching a ballet to transport you out of the insanity of your own life into another world. I had left my overnight bag at the train station for the day, so it was easy enough to catch the train back to Nijmegen. I left the city to a gorgeous sunset behind the skyline. Dank je wel, Amsterdam, for a lovely visit. Methinks we’ll meet again.