From August 6 through 16, 2014 five of us — my parents, Karin, Claire and I — drove the Iceland ring road. Our adventures were numerous and my photos were plentiful. I chronicled our trips in a live-ish blog post summarizing the highlights of our trip, in chronological order… but I often find that after such a mind-blowing adventure, it’s good to step back and reflect on the many things that have left an impression upon your mind, body and spirit. This is the fourth of four of those Icelandic Reduxtions, reflecting more narrowly…
on Swimming Pools
The definitive Icelandic activity seems to be a soak. Or a swim. Or at the very least, a dip in the pool.
We’d speed through the smallest and remotest of towns, places with populations in the low double-digits whose names barely qualified for a dot on our map save for the fact that they had a gas station. But almost without fail, these little hamlets would have a swimming pool.
In my live-blog on our travels through Iceland I wrote about our pool experiences: showering under strict supervision in the nude, the reek of sulphur, the impressively advanced technology (RFID lockers and LED water slides) and the joy of a hot tub in a cool country.
The Blue Lagoon, that epic-touristy-you-gotta-try-that activity that so often gets associated with Iceland was the last activity on our tour, literally a detour on our way to the airport while we carted our luggage from one shuttle, into storage, and then back onto another. Some purists suggested that the Blue Lagoon was a little too-tourist-trappy, or not as natural as one is led to believe (being more a man-made lake of geothermal power effluent than some magic natural hot spring.) And yeah, while it fit into the which-of-these-is-not-like-the-others category of our multiple swimming experiences in Iceland, a couple hours there was something I wouldn’t have missed in retrospect.
on Vikings, Edda & Culture
In many ways I feel vastly unqualified to even hint at writing on this topic. The most I can offer is sharing the sentiment that we so often expressed as we gazed out the car window of “geeze… this place looks a lot like something from Lord of the Rings!”
It’s funny, though. We so often in the twenty-first century associate our perception of Tolkien’s fictional Middle Earth with New Zealand, if for no other reason than that all the films were recorded there.
But in researching upon our return I was only a little surprised to learn that Tolkien was greatly influenced by Snorri Sturluson, the thirteenth century Icelandic-viking-ish poet and politician and the author of the Prose Edda, who’s descriptions of his home and the tales of his characters who lived there seem to have inspired Tolkien as he developed the setting of Middle Earth. Some sites I’ve since read argue that there is no more Middle-Earth-like setting than Iceland because of this connection.
Of course, we saw that in the landscape, vast stretches of scenery that seemed constructed as if in compliment to Rohan or Mordor. It was also more than once that I walked through the entrance of an old turf house (museum, of course) and the mound of earth covered in scrub grass and built up to be as much a hole-in-the-ground as humanly possible, though to walk through the door into a fully furnished, hard-wood-floored, elegantly victorian-styled dwelling I would turn to Claire and say “You know you’re in a Hobbit hole, right?” Not that she was, but the feeling of it was as close as I ever expect to be, even were I to travel to the New Zealand sets of the movie and step into that fictional recreation.
on Hot Dogs, Bakeries & Orange Soda
Oh, that sounds pretty normal, you say. And while I’ve already written on the mishmash of food topics that are snack food and weird, nearly-inedible delicacies, I thought one more brief excursion into the world of Icelandic cuisine (from the perspective of this tourist Canadian, at least) was due.
Before we’d even got off the shuttle from the airport, our driver had detoured his route through the streets of Reykjavik and past a little silver-toned food court standing lonely in a small parking lot near the harbour. “That’s Bæjarins beztu pylsur.” He told us. “The best hot dog in Iceland.”
A day or so later, as I was munching-down on my own ‘pylsur’ I learned a couple of things about the so-called “The Icelandic National Food” (some of those facts conveniently downloaded on my phone from Wikipedia.) First, Icelandic hot dogs in Reykjavik are just ok. Sorry, guys. I ordered mine with “the works” and while I’m not denying that it was a taste and cost-effective treat, give me a smokie with some kraut and hot sauce from the Fat Franks cart near my office any day. Second, though it may be famous and the food to try when you visit, you may want to wait until your can find a hot dog joint from somewhere else in the country… like say, Akureyri… where I gave the Icelandic hot dog a reluctant second chance and was much more impressed the second time around.
Hot dogs were one of the cheap foods. In a previous instalment I had a little bit of tourist-rage going on for the extreme prices in our hosting country. But relatively speaking, hot dogs were pretty cheap. As were bakeries (which never really served us wrong for quick, cheap snacks) or picking up a bottle of Appelsín (literally, I believe) translating into “orange” soda.
on Tunnels, Narrow Roads & Driving
And finally, on driving. Driving. Driving. That thing which we seemed to do so much of, but of which at the same time I did none. Driving.
Karin and my dad took the two driver slots on our rental car (a third would have added significantly to the already high cost) and we rolled down the Icelandic Ring Road, aka Route 1, aka Þjóðvegur for hours each day, seeking out the next famous or interesting sight to see.
According to Wikipedia (now referenced twice in the same blog post!) the ring road is 1,332 kilometres long. We added onto that by going down an extra fjord (or three) and skipping the shortcut back to Reykjavik (so subtract a little and then add a lot more for detours.) But either way, I think it is fair to say that we travelled a great big chunk of that road on our nine day trip around the island. And for most of it, I sat in the front seat of our Land Rover (LR4 4×4, in white, with heated leather seats!) as navigator and chief map guy… though no one ever called me either of those names. *sigh*
Route One was arguably the best of the roads we travelled, yet in many places was barely a shoulder-less ridge around a cliff on the seaside, narrowed to a single lane (total, not each way) across major bridges, or burrowed through a multi-kilometer tunnel under a mountain. Don’t get me wrong: apart from a few gravel stretches or the occasional sheep on the road, it was a great drive: smooth and scenic, and an epic view of the country. (Some day, perhaps, I’ll post the stop-motion video I made from the front window of our car… or you’ll just need to come over to the house and watch it there.) Unforgettable, in many ways.
So, in the end, and after all my reflections on Iceland, my fumbles and my favorites, would I recommend driving it? Well, yeah… but also I’d recommend just going there. How you get around –by foot, by bike, by hitchhiking, or by the power of a 4×4 luxury vehicle– I don’t suppose really matters. Just bring a camera, your sense of adventure, and a few people to share it all with.
Thanks for having us, Iceland. It was fun.