Monday, June 29, 2009

Iceland - next stop

Yesterday in Isafjordur, it was glorious out, sunny, and perhaps above 20C. I hiked up one river from sea-level up to where snow-melt feeds it - though technically not to the very stop, that would have required mountaineering skills beyond my ken - then back down a second river. There were many waterfalls (and photographs) along the way. I didn't want to ford the rivers/brooks while hiking all alone, which required some detours. Often I had to hike upstream to get to a waterfall, where the stream would be broken into several branches, making crossing easier... and the overall trek longer! I was beat by the time I got back to town in the evening.

This morning I leave Isafjordur to head south. I think I should get a stop in at Latrabjarg, a huge bird sanctuary with very tame puffins. Unfortunately, puffins seem to take a siesta (do they know this is Iceland, not Spain?) from 2-4 each day and I'll be there 2-3:30, but hopefully there will be some night owls, so to speak. From there, I take a ferry across the Breidafjordur. If weather is okay, tomorrow I'll do a whirl through the Snafellsnes peninsula for one last taste of fjords, glaciers, volcanos, and sandur before returning to Reykjavik for a few days... and then heading back to Canada in a few short days' time.


Saturday, June 27, 2009

Isafjordur, Iceland

Here in Iceland, in the grocery stores, some foodstuffs are expensive, fresh produce in grocery stores sometimes looks a little dreary (except locally grown hydroponics), but fish and dairy products are very reasonably priced. Yesterday I bought some smoked herring for about CAD$1, enough for 3 people to share and have lots of each. (It was very nice stuff too.) And the dairy products, yum yum! I have been eating lots and lots of skyr, which is like a thick creamy yogourt, except technically a cheese, and it's actually basically fat free. I'm surprised I still like it! I make up with 3.9% milk with breakfast, and occasional treats of "Þykkmjólk" which has about 5% fat (the first letter of Þykkmjólk, if it doesn´t come through, is the letter "thorn" which looks kind of like a P and is "th" like in "thistle", not to be confused with the letter "eth" which looks like a D with a slash and is "th" like in "that"). There are so many milk beverages that many grocery stores have a multilingual chart in the dairy section to tell foreigners what it all is. Yum. There is butter too, which is very good, and usually unsalted.

Tonight I went to a local restaurant specialising in seafood. They are part of the local maritime museum, and they serve whatever the catch of the day is. One of the choices was halibut (my favourite fish), another was salt cod (which I don't think I've ever actually tried) with chili sauce, and there were about two other fish to choose from. I hesitated between the halibut and salt cod, and chose the halibut. While I waited for my order, a French couple walked in, and shared my table (it was crowded). One ordered the salt cod, one ordered something else. When our 3 dishes arrived, I discovered shrimp in the sauce of my halibut. I am allergic to shrimp, and was wondering how I was going to explain this to the waitress whose English was good but not perfect. Fortunately the man (of the French couple) was willing to swap plates with me and I ended up with the salt cod. It was a bit salty, but very delicious and well-prepared. Sorry, I forgot to take a picture.

I did take a picture of the lamb I had last night in the hotel in town. I understand the chef was French-trained, but whatever the case, it was delicious. If you are ever in Iceland, you must try the lamb, even if you are a lamb-hater. It is very tender, juicy, and mild, and almost completely devoid of the sheepy flavour you get in Canadian and New Zealand lamb.

Two nice restaurant meals, two days in a row: a bit of a splurge, so tomorrow it's back to camping grub... er, self-catered meals.

Today I went sea-kayaking in Isafjordur, and tomorrow I will go hiking in the area. The buses here in the West Fjords only run thrice weekly, so I will have had three whole nights here - the longest I have stayed put since leaving Reykjavik! - before continuing south to Reykjavik. The weather was okay Friday, and great yesterday and today. It is supposed to be rainy for the next few days. I guess that when it's rainy, it's better to spend part of your day in a bus rather than in a tent or out hiking, kayaking, etc... and I'll have a bit of buses for the next few days as I make my way back to Reykjavik with detours to the Snaefellsnes peninsula in West Iceland for more glacier and volcano chasing.

It's now midnight, with only a hint of sunset colours in the sky. It never gets dark. The light here is fantastic, though it's hard to make myself wind down and go to bed at the end of the day... but that's what I'll do now, so I can get up relatively early tomorrow for my hike.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009


I knew I was forgetting something. Well, I've omitted lots of wonderful sights, like some of the waterfalls and geological features and glaciers and geothermal fields, but I made no mention at all of Jökulsárlón, where the bus stopped for about 25 minutes. Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon, at one tip of the giant glacier Vatnajökull, where chunks of the glacier break off into a tidal lagoon and float around to the delight of visitors before they* head out to sea as icebergs. Little crystal iceberglets wash up on shore for you to eat/crunch/drink if you desire. It's the kind of place where, at least when it comes to the aspect of composition, it's hard to take a bad picture because everywhere you look is stunning. That was definitely one of many "WOWEEEEEEEEEEE" moments on this trip.

(* the glacial chunks, not the visitors)

Iceland's southern coast

I left Reykjavik, on the west coast of Iceland, a few days ago - how easily one loses track of the days of the week on vacation - and am now in Egilsstadir, on the east coast.

The weather has been on and off, with a knack for raining right when I'm taking down my tent. Oh well, you can't have it all and otherwise I'm having a wonderful time.

I have had some wonderful weather, too, like in Vik (fantastic views of sea-stacks, beaches, thye sandar [sand + river wastelands at glacial outflows], Dyrholaey island, Myrdalsjokull glacier) and at Skaftafell National Park (surrounding mountains and glaciers and more sandar, plus many shots of alpine flora).

Speaking of the flora, one thing that you cannot overlook in Iceland are the lupines. They were introduced (apparently from Canada?) to stabilise or improve bad or nutrient-poor soil, like on the sandar, but they've proven to be invasive in this climate; they crowd out native species, and the sheep don't eat them. You can see entire meadows, lava-fields, and mountain-sides painted blue. It's quite beautiful actually, although ecologically not so great.

Speaking of sheep, there are lots of lots of lamb everywhere in the countryside. Usually there are fences but there are free-roaming sheep, and sometimes the buses have to make a quick stop to avoid them. They are mostly white (cream) but some black, a few brown, and a few multi-coloured. They are also very tasty, if I can go by the lamb I had for supper in Vik. Even people who don't like lamb might like it here; it's very mild and tender.

If you ever find yourself in Vik, do check out the church, it's beautiful inside in a nordically restrained elegant way, and the stained glass is marvellous. I would say it's the most beautiful small church I've ever seen. Vik's black-sand beach is stunning, too, though cold for swimming. Bring your own wetsuit/drysuit? But definitely bring your own swimsuit, for the many swimming pools with hot-pots.

I'm in Egilsstadir - the library here has free internet - and in a few hours, I'm off to Seydisfjordur for sea-kayaking. Next stops: Myvatn, Akureyri, and the north of Icleand.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

More on Reykjavik

My campground is in a valley surrounded my sports and leisure facilities. You see all sorts of Icelanders out, young and old, Nordic walking (with poles), running, or going to/from the swimming pool. I went swimming yesterday and the mix was the same, young and old. The pool was an outdoor pool with several hot pots (think jacuzzi soaking tubs) to choose from: 38C, 40C, 42C, and 44C. I maxed out at 42C. Maybe I'll try 44C tonight.

Yesterday was the national holiday. I caught the parade downtown - two parades in fact - first a motorcade of old cars, from the 1930s to the 1970s. I didn't realise 1970s cars were considered antiques! After that was the parade of people. By Montreal standards there weren't that many fancy floats but it was a really nice atmosphere. There were, however, a few "Vikings" dressed in bright red, white, and blue superhero outfits with capes (I think) and helmets. Some kayaked down the road (ok, their kayaks were floating atop mini-cranes, with a blue tarp to suggest water), others bounced down the street on springy elliptical stilt-like contraptions. They would cry "BEP" or something equally mystifying, seemingly in response to certain individuals, but it made more fun than sense. Maybe if I understood Old Norse...

At the end of the parade, there was a troop of about a dozen adolescent guys in the garden of an official building. They would take a few steps and do a back-flip. Or run up to the 8-foot stone wall, run up the wall, and do a back-flip down to the ground. Or run up-hill and do some more back-flips. Wow, their acrobatics were impressive to watch!

I caught part of a concert, with two sets: the end of a girl-band, and the start of a jazz big band. Setup for the second concert took a long time but they were fun to watch. Next to me was a family with young kids - by the way there are LOTS of young kids in Iceland - and I never would have guessed that little kids liked jazz so much. One was spinning around, half-dancing, half-running, for almost the whole time with an infectious ear-to-ear grin. His sister was sitting on the shoulders of her father (grandfather?), playing the drums on his patient pate.

I've visited two museums: "Reyjavik 871 +/- 2" which shows an excavated longhouse from 871AD plus or minus two years, and the Culture House. I came near closing time, so I had to skip some of their exhibits (like on Icelandic film) and go straight to the exhibit on medieval manuscripts of the sagas, eddas, and other significant texts, this was very impressive. In addition to the museums, I strolled through the Botanical Gardens on my way from my campground to a shopping district. At least I think it was the Bot Gdns, though it could have been an adjoining park. It was attractive though, shall we say, restrained.

Two nights ago I went to dinner with my friend John from Montreal, who is a travel consultant here for part of the year. He took me to a wonderful and inexpensive restaurant called Icelandic Fish & Chips ( The fish was impeccably fresh, the batter shatteringly crispy and light, the oven-roasted potato chunks deliciously redolent of olive oil, the dipping sauces beautifully seasoned ("skyronnaise", like mayonnaise, but made with skyr, see previous post), the house-made lemon-ginger soda very gingery and not too sweet, the mango salad a lovely flavour combination yet not too sweet, and the carrot cake a satisfying conclusion. When in Rekjavik, don't miss this place.

Last night, I went to another restaurant John had recommended, serving Thai food. I ordered fish in red curry sauce. It was tasty, though not at all what I expected. The fish was covered in a rather thick batter and deep-fried. The fish itself was very fresh but a bit chewy in texture (wolf-fish? older haddock?). It was served on a bed of chili-oil, coated with a big layer of red-curry paste, garnished with deep-fried veggies and herbs, and served with a suitably generous portion of rice. I left feeling satisifed but with perhaps a tinge of heart-burn.

Today's adventures revolved around doing some shopping: another pair of liner socks, a refill cannister of gas for my camping stove, sunscreen, and a new cell-phone power cord. The latter two were surprises in a way. I forgot my sunscreen at home, and got a bit burnt yesterday watching the parade. Today I found out that sunscreen, unlike dairy products, is on the list of things that are very expensive in Iceland. Hmmph. The need for a cell-phone cord rather irritates me. The phone is from the UK with a gigantic UK plug at the end fo the cord. Before I left Montreal, I bought a UK-to-EUR power adapter. When I tried to plug it in yesterday here in Iceland, I discovered that a square peg (power adapter) does not fit into a round hole (power outlet). Grrrrrrrrrrr. Hence the need for a new power adapter. I'm not sure I'll use the phone much since I can't get things right to do a top-up (my other piece of international traveller blues) but it's my alarm clock and my emergency contact device so I don't want to take the risk.

Tomorrow morning I leave Reykjavik. I've really enjoyed my three days here. It would be easy to stay a few more days but I think it's time to start discovering more of the country. I've been agonising over whether to go south and east, or north and west. Tonight I'll decide. Perhaps in a few days I'll find internet access again and be able to write more about the next stage of Vikjavik's adventures.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Reykjavik musings

Here are a few random thoughts about my trip to Iceland so far. (No time for un-randomness, my internet time is about to expire!)

Based on my prior experiences, Iceland feels like an amazing combination of Newfoundland (geography) plus Finland (culture) plus an outdoorsy culture plus outer space (more geography).

Skyr is a delicious yogourt-like treat. It's made from skim milk, yet manages to be delicious. It's inexpensive. Prices here are all over the map, even when you compare two different brands of imported chocolate bars I saw in a food store today, one cheap one expensive.

My flight left Halifax at sunset, but it got lighter not darker as we flew north (well, northeast) to Iceland. It was quite something waking up at 4am prior to landing, and it being as bright as 2pm Montreal time. Alas, once on the ground it was a bit cloudier.

Must sign out now, time is about to run out.

Monday, June 8, 2009

City mouse, country mouse

This past weekend my choir took part in a 4-choir concert. We had one concert in Montreal on Saturday and another on Sunday in an older off-island town about 70km away. So on Sunday afternoon, I drove up with three others. We arrived nice and early, so some of us went off to the dépanneur (convenience store) across from the cathedral to get some snacks. It was located on a street corner in rather a large building for a convenience store; evidently the building had once served some other purpose, perhaps a bank. By instinct we headed to the door on the corner of two sidewalks. It was locked shut with merchandise piled up inside the door, yet the business was obviously open judging by the activity inside.

We were baffled for a few moments, but then I figured it out. We weren't in a big city any more. Why would the entry be close to the sidewalk when there was a parking lot on the other side of the building? And there indeed was the entry, with automatic (motorized) doors to boot.

Why walk if you can drive, and why open doors with your own human strength: is this how the other half lives? It's really not so urban-exclusive, though, as many of my urban colleagues at work take the elevator rather than take the opportunity for 1 to 2 flights of exercise on the stairs.