Tuesday, August 18, 2009

ICELAND SAGA: Videy and "The World's Largest Pub"

With fresh clothes and caffeinated tummies, Joe and I decided to start our Saturday off with a trip to Reykjavik's Botanical Garden.  We walked to the bus station to buy tickets, arriving at 11:25.  I guess we shouldn't have been surprised upon seeing everything at the station shut down, considering that nothing else in the city was open.  To reiterate, we quickly learned that on the weekends in Reykjavik nothing happens in the morning.  A lone concession worker informed us that tickets were not being sold until noon.  Rather than wait, we decided to walk to the Garden, housed in the middle of a rather large park only three or so miles from the bus station.  One of the neighborhoods we walked through really reminded me of L.A., minus the palm and citrus trees.  My friend Beth lived in L.A. for a year while working with AmeriCorps and the Program for Torture Victims, and this neighborhood looked eerily like hers.  Maybe it was just because of all the stucco.  Lots and lots of stucco.  The Icelandic houses were a bit boxier, with a skosh of art deco, and the majority of the roofs were tin.  Yeah, ok, it was all the stucco.  I wish I would have taken a picture of the street so I could have Beth verify that I'm totally off, but I was in "I would never hang a picture of this on my wall" mode, which makes me worry that I'm a poor photographer.  

We found the park easily with our trusty Lonely Planet map, but we weren't so fortunate with finding the Garden itself.  You see, this particular park has no roads running through it, so once we entered it we couldn't tell where in it we were walking.  It's difficult to tell where you are on a map based on open fields and trees.  After a couple hours of roaming, with feet starting to ache, crabbiness starting to set in (Remember, Julie, you're in Iceland.  You're in Iceland!  I kept reminding myself), and little faith that we would successfully find our destination, we decided to forego the Botanical Garden and move on.  I can't even find a good website devoted to the Garden to let you see pictures, so I'm going to confidently say that we didn't miss out on much.

On to the island of Videy.  

There is actually supposed to be a small dash at the top of the "d," which is pronounced like a "th" in English, so the island name really sounds like "Vithey."  Thought you might want to know that.  We had to take a 10 minute ferry ride to get to the island.  It was a pretty small boat, and it rocked back and forth heavily the entire ride.  I felt like a wimp for feeling nauseated.  Videy was once home to a monastery established in 1225, but it closed down in 1539 after being pillaged by men of the Danish king.  In 1755 the first sheriff of Iceland, Skuli Magnusson (Do you automatically think "Skuli, son of Magnus" like I do now?) had a house built there called Videyjarstofa, which is one of the oldest preserved buildings in Iceland, and incidentally its first concrete building.  Here is a totally boring picture I took of it.   

Videy is deserted now, save for the cafe inside Videyjarstofa, but anything I have read about the island refers to its population, great farming land and fish processing industry.  This is confusing to me, because we walked the trails of the island--which is only 1.6 square kilometers--in two hours.  There are remains of a village and a school, and I read that in 1930, 138 people lived on Videy.  When the local fishing company closed down in 1931 inhabitants slowly moved away until the island's desertion in 1943.  Now that the history lesson is over, here are more pictures.

See those tiny pillars in the distance in this picture?  Those are 4 of 9 pillars of columnar basalt sculpted and donated by American Richard Serra in 1990.  Apparently they frame a nearby landmark, but I don't know what that landmark is because I didn't see anything. 

Interesting Videy fact: The island is home to the Imagine Peace Tower, which is a tower of light created by Yoko Ono in 2007 in memory of John Lennon.  Its light shines every year from his birthday on October 9 to his death on December 8.  Needless to say, we did not see it.  I'm not a huge John Lennon fan or anything, but the tower would have been cool to see against the Aurora Borealis.  Oh well.

Also, in 2000, a statue of Virgin Mary was unveiled as a celebration of 1000 years of Christianity in Iceland.  Mary was the patron saint of the Videy monastery.

Back in Reykjavik, after having dinner at another AMAZING vegetarian restaurant, called One Woman Restaurant (rumor has it that both Mick Jagger and Madonna love to eat there),we decided to walk to the next city over called Seltjarnarnes.  There were two attractions that drew us to the town.  1. A lighthouse 2. What Lonely Planet phrased as "The World's Largest Pub."  The pub was described as having a glass dome and that we should picture "a covered outdoor market with lots of beer vendors."  I pictured a very large outdoor flea market.  In my mind it was just huge, endless.  What we found was quite the opposite.  I mean QUITE.  What we found was a medium sized business building completely enclosed with a large sky light and several store fronts (more than one was dedicated to selling electronics).  We walked around its outside several times thinking we must have missed something or gotten the address wrong, but it all matched up.  All of the businesses inside were closed, except for a dinky bar, whose name matched Lonely Planet's for "the world's largest pub."  Picture Northwest Plaza (deserted St. Louis Mall for those of you who don't know) and a scaled down crappier Houlihan's inside it.  Then you have "the world's largest pub."  I don't know what the editor's were thinking, but the place was an absolute joke.  My apartment is bigger than this bar.  We had a skunky beer there anyway since we had walked all that way (a Viking, but it's pronounced "wicking," which we didn't know, and the bartender looked at us like we were from a different planet), but it was so not worth it.  I guess it was worth the laugh.  This is my WTF? picture.

Afterwards we tried to find the lighthouse, but never found that either.  Our feet were getting super tired, so I don't think we tried very hard.  On the walk back to Reykjavik the Viking hit my bladder.  We were just uncomfortably far enough from our hotel that I definitely had to find a place to pee.  We stumbled upon a gas station, but when I went in, all of the standard gray gas station doors were unmarked.  There were two men in the shop having a conversation, but I felt so embarrassed that I walked out instead of asking them which door was hiding the toilet.  No other businesses were in sight, and I was beyond doing the potty dance.  Joe spotted this gathering of trees:

Normally, I would never ever do this out in the open.  First off, it's a much more difficult task for girls than I think boys will ever realize.  A little over a year ago I was assisting on a photo shoot in Iowa in the middle of a soybean field, which was surrounded by miles of more soy bean fields and corn fields.  I was the only girl on the shoot.  Every time nature called one of the three men I was with, they simply walked into the corn and took care of business.  When Mother Nature knocked on my door I realized I hadn't done this since grade school when I went camping with a friend and her family.  I wasn't really sure how to go about doing it.  Any position seemed awkward to me, and I nearly urinated on my pants.  I swore I would never do that again, but there in Reykjavik I just couldn't hold it any more.  The reason I am telling you this stupid story, I'm realizing, is really to illustrate just how light out it stays during the summer in Iceland.  This photograph was taken at 8 p.m. at the earliest.  Even with standing in the thick of the trees I was sure if anyone passed by they would be able to look directly through all the branches and see pantsless me.  It wasn't fun or comfortable, and I'm not proud.  But my bladder and kidneys love me.  

Sunday, August 16, 2009

ICELAND SAGA: The Aftermath of a Runtur and the Status of Our Lost Luggage

Runtur: An Icelandic pub crawl, to be short.  On Friday and Saturday nights, cafes by day become bars; bars that normally close at 1 a.m. keep the beer flowing until 3 a.m., and the 3 a.m. establishments stay open until 5 a.m. (with people still in them).  If you recall from the last post, on our first Friday night in Reykjavik Joe and I went to Cafe Paris at 11:30.  Know here and now that we couldn't make it past 1:00 before pooping out.  We said we wanted to experience the runtur, but also didn't want to sleep the trip away.  That's what I told myself as I fought back yawns at the bar anyway.  On Saturday morning we left the hotel at 8:30 to go somewhere for coffee and wandered around until 9:00 trying to find a cafe that was open.  Until stumbling upon a chain cafe (it was obvious), we had only seen signs stating that the cafes we actually wanted to go to didn't open until 11 a.m. at the earliest...on a Saturday...in the capital of the country.  Reykjavik did seem oddly lifeless as we roamed the streets, save a handful of other tourists and the street cleaners that drove up and down the streets and sidewalks ridding the city of runtur litter.  It didn't look as bad as St. Patrick's Day in Dogtown, but it's safe to say it was a stone's throw.  We would end up seeing the same scenario on Sunday morning, too, which made me wonder how much money the city spends on street upkeep every year.  

After coffee we went back to the Salvation Army Guesthouse so we could call the airport regarding the status of our luggage, which we still had not received.  We had been wearing the same clothes for over 36 hours, and I was ready for a new shirt and fresh underwear, not to mention some socks for the used, unwashed tennis shoes I was still wearing.  When we had left the airport the previous morning the nice man at the baggage service counter had handed me two travel kits and told me they were for us to survive on until we got our belongings back. Each one contained a mini bottle of "cleansing milk" that I suppose was intended to double as shampoo and body wash--which never works with my hair--and mini bottles of moisturizer, shaving cream (accompanied by a razor) and tooth paste (with matching tooth brush).  They also came with mini deodorants that smelled like cheap men's cologne and a plain white tshirt, size XL.  I was ready to get my stuff back.  I will say that when I called Keflavik a human being picked up the telephone right away, and it was the exact person I needed to speak to for answers.  Supposedly we would be getting our bags delivered to us by 10:00 that very morning. Huzzah!  No more passing the concierge's counter with sad puppy dog faces asking if any backpacks had been delivered with only a confused look for a response!  Sigh of relief.

The satisfaction of putting on fresh clothes was, in a word, joyous.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

ICELAND SAGA: Arriving in Reykjavik and Touring The Golden Circle

By the time we arrived in Reykjavik I felt pretty much over the loss of our luggage, having just spent two hours in The Blue Lagoon and taking a 30 minute nap on the bus ride to the city. Reykjavik is fairly small, and most of our activities would be around the city's center, which is very easy to navigate with a map.  We were able to quickly find our hotel, The Salvation Army Guesthouse.  After we checked in we decided to walk around the city and see what we could find.  Reykjavik is built on a hillside (mountainside?), and it immediately reminded me of a mini San Francisco.  Some of the streets went pretty steep.  The weather was a mild 55 degrees, or so, and it was sunny, but I was glad to be wearing a cardigan over my tshirt when the breeze blew.  After eating lunch at an exclusively vegetarian restaurant (delicious!!) we quickly ran into Reykjavik's largest Lutheran church, Hallgrimskirkja.  Definitely check out the pictures in that link, because this is what we saw:

Total bummer that the church was so heavily scaffolded.  It sits at one of the highest points of the city, and we could see it almost anywhere we went--a constant reminder that Hallgrimskirkja looked more like the Chrysler Building than a church.  Hallgrimskirkja is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrimur Petursson.  (Side note:  I love the way Icelanders form their last names.  It is always composed using the individual's father's first name + whether he or she is a son (son) or daughter (dottir).  So Hallgrimur is the son of Petur.  I would be Julie Davidssdottir, but my brother would be Jeffrey Davidsson.  Joe would be Joseph Williamsson.  Now you try!  Interestingly, since 1925 an Icelander can only create a family name if he explicitly has a legal right to do so through inheritance, at least according to Wikipedia.)  Hallgrimskirkja was designed by the architect Gudjon Samuelsson, and it took 38 years to build, from 1945-86.  I don't know what was up the building being renovated if it was completed only 23 years ago, but whatever.  In front of the church is this really awesomely large statue of Lief Erikson, who, as you may know, was the actual first European to have landed in North America--not that Columbus fellow.  

The monument was a gift from the U.S. in 1930 for the Althing Millennial Festival, which marked the 1000th anniversary of Iceland's parliament.  Hallgrimskirkja is the tallest building in Iceland.  I guess they built it so tall so they could fit this huge organ inside of it.  

The organ was built in Germany in 1992, and it includes a 50-foot-tall case and 5,275 pipes.  It was really cool to see in person, but didn't quite make up for the scaffold entombed exterior. Perhaps a trip up the tower of the church, which we were told was still open, would make up for it?  Seeing a bird's eye view of the city sounded great.  We paid our 400 kroner (a little more than $3) and took the elevator ride up.  We emerged to a room half sided with caging, and half with wooden boards blocking our view from the city.  On the wall that held, presumably, the most spectacular view of the city hung a large picture, nay, drawing, of the view we
would have seen if that huge board wasn't in the way.  I did manage to stick my lens past a part of the caging on another wall for a picture.  Here, enjoy this photograph of a suburb of Reykjavik. 

That sign stating
The church tower is still open!  should have at least had something in fine print that stated But you can't see anything out of it.  

One of the musts we read about things to do in Iceland was touring The Golden Circle, which consists of the prairie land at Pingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss, and the "original" geyser Geysir (of which all geysers are now named after).  Normally the tour is taken by bus during the day, lasting 9 hours, and you're surrounded by 100 other tourists.  Here is a map of The Golden Circle (you can see where everything is in relation to Reykjavik, and you can see how far from the city The Blue Lagoon and the airport are).  We were advised to take the tour at sunset, as there would be far fewer people and it would only last 5 hours, which is plenty of time on a bus for me.  With the setting sun, I was getting increasingly worried about being cold on the tour.  I feared that my discomfort would distract me from all the cool stuff we were about to see, so I considered buying another layer.  However, the only choices I could find were $200 jackets from 66 Degrees North (like our The North Face) or a $50 hooded sweatshirt from a tourist shop that said in Icelandic I don't speak Icelandic.  I would have felt like a real boob traipsing around in that get up, and I would hate to have spent so much money on a jacket, especially if our luggage came within the next couple days.  I decided to suck it up. 

We got picked up from our hotel (nice service!) by our stud bus driver at 6:30.  I wish I knew his name.  He was a lanky middle-aged guy who was quite good-humored and talked about random Icelandic facts, but didn't talk too much.  Example fact:  Apparently there is a hot dog stand that Bill Clinton enjoyed eating at (once? several times? I don't know.) while in Iceland, and the bus driver hears that if you go there and order a "Bill Clinton" they put mustard on your dog.  He also talked about the belief in "hidden people" by the Icelanders--at least, no one dares admit that they don't exist.  The first stop was Pingvellir (Ping translates into "parliament" and vellir into "meadows").  Parliament was established here in 930 A.D. and remained until 1789.  I'm kind of disappointed in the pictures I took of it, because they're not nearly as captivating as actually being there.  I tried, though.  Sorry, I don't know how to get my panoramics bigger.  If you click on them you can view them larger in a different window.

After Pingvellir, we took a very bumpy hour long drive to Gullfoss, which means "Golden Falls."  The falls were positioned in the shade.  It would have been neat to see it sparkle in direct sunlight, but nonetheless, it was pretty amazing to see.  It's just huge.  The crevice itself is about 60 feet wide.

It was admittedly quite chilly when we were standing to the side of the waterfall (that top left cliff in this picture).  To stand in front of the waterfall, as we are here, is freezing.  The mist from
Gullfoss was unavoidable.  Poor Joe in his short sleeves.  All of the people around us were in heavy coats or fancy warm jackets and hats, so I know we looked like a couple schmucks.  We snapped this picture quickly, as we were quite cold, then ran to the bus to thaw.  

Our final stop on The Golden Circle tour was Geysir (pronounced "gay-ZEER"), which is apparently the oldest known geyser.  Since the English translation is pretty clear, I'll tell you that the name Geysir is derived from the Icelandic word gjosa, meaning to erupt.  The panormic below is of the inactive Geysir, which is all we saw of it. 

 In 1910 it erupted every 30 minutes, but gradually slowed to a stop.  Random earthquakes throughout the 20th century have revived the geyser, and now it erupts about 3 times a day.  We did, however, watch the geyser Strokkur erupt several times, as it goes off every 4 minutes or so.  I used the motor drive on my camera to capture its sequence.

And here it is backlit.

We were dropped back off at our hotel around 11:30.  The sun was still out enough to see by (think 8:30 p.m. St. Louis time in the summer), which intrigued us, and we wanted to take advantage of the long days.  We decided to go out to a cafe/bar called Cafe Paris.  When we tried to order a Danish beer called Tuborg (it was the first one I saw that I was sure of on pronunciation, so that's why I ordered it), the bartender told us that if we were going to visit Iceland we need to drink Icelandic beer.  He gave us each a Gull, as in seagull, and I'm telling you that was some skunky beer.  We sat at the bar sipping on the drinks and pretty soon the bartender started doing tricks, a la Cocktail.  It was like a young Tom Cruise was standing right in front of us flipping bottles and throwing ice into the air to catch the pieces in a glass before cooly pouring a sweet liquor over them.  After making a particularly sassy looking cocktail the bartender dipped a straw in the drink and, after taking a taste, proceeded to double dip the straw back in and take another drink.  I think my jaw fell open.  I guess that's cool in Iceland, though.  When I asked him what the drink was he replied, "A cocktail."  Oh, ok, thanks.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

ICELAND SAGA: The Blue Lagoon

Hello, Friends!

Joe and I returned from our trip to Iceland on Monday night, and I have the first of several installments of stories and pictures for your pleasure.  We started planning our trip in early April, giving us 4 months to figure out exactly we wanted to see and do.  I didn't know much about Iceland at the time but a photographer friend and mentor, Jay Fram, had gone in 2007, and his photographs got me really excited to go.  The prospect of the mix between city life in the capital of Reykjavik and remote nature excursions in the Westfjords sounded perfect to me.  Joe and I are not campers, that is, we've never attempted camping together, and a chilly foreign country probably wasn't the place to try it.  Our plan was hostels and busses, as renting a car currently costs a couple hundred dollars a day.  Eeesh.  Here is a map of Iceland.  Iceland's international airport is located about 45 minutes away from Reykjavik (focus your attention on the lower left corner of the map).  We left St. Louis at 2:30 on Thursday July 30.  Joe and I were a little nervous about the flight (I tend to picture exploding into a ball of flames immediately after take off), so we each had a Mexican Sidecar at the airport's Tequilaria.  
A rip off, yes, but it was worth easing the tension.  By the way, those folks can make a good drink.  It was super tart and not too sweet.  But I know you don't care about the drinks we had in St. Louis, so I'll move on.  The flight times worked out perfect for preventing jet lag.  We were to arrive at Keflavik at 1:30 a.m. St. Louis time, or 6:30 a.m. Icelandic time.  I was really nervous about not sleeping on the plane and staying awake for more than 24 hours, but I fell asleep at 9:30 p.m. and when I woke up at the end of the flight the sun was out, and I was able to psyche myself into thinking I slept a full night.  This may seem like meaningless information for the moment, but I wore three- year-old flip flops on the plane.  I absolutely hate wearing shoes, and if I was going to be traveling for 11 hours I wanted my toes to be comfortable.  I would change into sneakers when we got our luggage at the airport.  About an hour before we landed, I woke up to the little old man next to me (Joe and I did not get to sit together on the flight from Boston to Iceland) needing to pee, and when I shifted my foot my left sandal broke.  The little nub that holds the toe stem underneath broke off, just clean broke off, and there was no repairing it.  Oh well, I thought, it's funny that it happened now, but I'm not that surprised, and I won't need flip flops the rest of the trip.  The weather in Iceland wasn't supposed to pass 55 degrees the entire time we were there.  

Skip ahead to the hour we sat staring at the baggage claim waiting for our backpacks that never showed up.  I think I did a really good job staying calm for the majority of the time we were waiting.  I knew it wasn't the worst thing that could happen, and hey, we were in Iceland.  I had all of my camera gear with me, too.  It wasn't until we were actually about to walk out of the airport without our luggage that I started to cry.  Really, I guess it was the uncertainty of when we would actually get our bags, but I was upset that I didn't have a shoe on my left foot, too.  I'd been walking without a shoe on for the last hour (I tried hard not to think about how gross that was), and we couldn't get back into the airport to shop for another pair, if any of the stores even had any shoes. When I tearfully walked up to the baggage service desk, the very nice man behind the counter offered me a pair of sandals that a middle-aged man would wear with socks and cargo shorts.  I choked back a sob at the thought of wearing this ugly ass footwear.  Before I could accept or reject them (I still wasn't sure which I would choose), he ducked back into the office and came back with a pair of women's tennis shoes that were exactly my size.  Compared to the sandals, they belonged on a Paris runway, and I took them.  Sorry, to whomever these shoes belong, but I have a feeling they'd been there for awhile.  Oh, and I hope you don't have a foot fungus, because I had to wear your shoes without socks.

The Blue Lagoon (note: I did not see any of the gorgeous people in these pictures at the facilities) is located in the middle of nowhere between Keflavik Airport and Reykjavik.  Perfect trap.  We had planned on stopping here on our way to the city anyway, but after losing our luggage this was the perfect way to unwind.  Unfortunately, our swim wear was not in our carry-on bag, so we each had to rent a swimsuit.  Anywhere else this would have completely grossed me out, but I felt confident that this place knew what it was doing.  Now for pictures!

Here's Joe on the walkway to The Blue Lagoon, luggage free.

The entrance to the spa. 

Me with the fun silica mask you can slop on your face from random pots 
stationed throughout the pool.

Sigh, sooooo steamy...

The restaurant attached to the pool.

That middle of nowhere I was talking about?  Yeah, that's it in the background.

After two hours of wading in delightfully hot water, being pummeled by a massaging waterfall, and sitting in a sauna I thought I would suffocate in, we headed for Reykjavik and the Salvation Army Guesthouse.  More to come soon.