I can’t say that I care for fish jerky. As a matter of fact, until a couple of weeks ago, I couldn’t have spoken on the subject of fish jerky, but I recently sampled some in Reykjavik and the next time I’m at a party and the subject turns to fish jerky—an admittedly rare occurrence—I’ll have an opinion to offer. It will not be positive. We were on a guided food walk, at the third of five restaurants where we got to sample some iconic Icelandic dishes. Our guide told us the secret was to slather it with a lot of butter. For my money, there’s not enough butter in the world to make the stuff taste good, but it is easier to swallow if you grease it up some. Imagine eating fish-flavored, thin-sliced fiberboard and you get the general idea. That was the same place we tasted fermented shark, which did at least slide down a little easier. Let me state for the record that I enjoyed everything else we ate that night, including the arctic char, the lamb, the hot dog (Iceland is known for its hot dogs), the fish stew, the bread, the soup, and the pastry and ice cream. It was one of a number of good meals we had while we were there. I’m even glad I tried I tried the fish jerky and the fermented shark, because they were new experiences, and I travel to experience new things.
For our trip to Iceland, PJ and I, along with my sister and brother-in-law from England, whom we met there, had planned a pretty good balance of guided events and time on our own. Before we took the food walk that evening, we had gone on a folklore walk. Iceland has a rich folklore tradition, and a significant percentage of Icelanders believe in elves, trolls, and supernatural beings. If they don’t exactly believe, at the very least, they don’t want to mess with them, just in case. J.R.R. Tolkien had an Icelandic nanny for his son, and her folktales strongly influenced his books. Tolkien’s Middle Earth is largely based on Icelandic and Nordic folklore. One of the places where we stopped on our tour was an elf rock, which is supposedly used by elves as a portal between this world and the one where they live. I’m still not entirely clear on how you can tell an elf rock from a regular rock, but this one was a boulder that had been on a construction site and the construction people were unable to move the rock when they needed to, even with heavy equipment and multiple attempts. They eventually brought in an elf mediator (I’m sure she has a more official title, but that’s the gist of it) to negotiate with the elves and ask them if they would allow the rock to be moved. The elves agreed, on the condition that they be given a week to get things in order, and that the rock would be moved to a central location in Reykjavik. A week later, the construction people were able to easily move the rock and they did indeed move it to a central place in Reykjavik. Who would be crazy enough to break their word to a bunch of elves?
It’s easy to believe in such creatures among the other-worldly scenery of Iceland. It has such a unique combination of factors—glaciers carving out the landscape; lava flows creating weird, lumpy fields where only lichen grows; and great fissures and hills where the North American and European tectonic plates meet. Driving along, you spot what appears to be the mouth of a cave in the side of a mountain—yep, a troll could definitely live there.
One of many things that we didn’t get to do was drive the ring road, which is the main highway that goes all the way around the island. We decided that 10 days simply wasn’t enough time to do it justice, but we’d definitely like to go back someday when we have more time. Instead of the ring road, we spent some time in Reykjavik, and in the southeastern part of the country. The small town of Vik, a couple of hours east of Reykjavik, was our base for several nights. From there, we went glacier hiking, visited the Glacier Lagoon and diamond beach at Jokulsarlon; saw Reynisfjara, the most widely recognized of Iceland’s black sand beaches, and visited some of the sites on Iceland’s Golden Circle.
The upright, basalt columns at Reynisfjara (which, incidentally, are purported to be frozen trolls) were, I understand, featured in the TV series Game of Thrones. I wouldn’t know as I never saw the series. I read several of the books, but he killed off all my favorite characters and as far as I could tell, nobody was any closer to the throne than they’d been when the whole thing had started. In short, I finally just got tired of all those people. But I digress.
The black sand at Reynisfjara, and elsewhere on the island, is actually cooled lava that has heavily eroded over time. Visitors to the beach are warned to be careful of dangerous riptides, but even without the warning signs, there’s an intensity, a certain primitive something, about Reynisfjara, that makes it different. It is more. This is not a beach for sunbathing and sand castles. This is a beach where the forces of nature demand awe and respect. I suspect that can be said of large parts of Iceland, but I was particularly aware of it in that place.
Jokulsarlon is a couple of hours east of Vik. The glacier lagoon, one of Iceland’s most famous attractions, was created from chunks of ice—great big chunks of ice—breaking off the Vatnajökull glacier, the largest glacier in Europe. Actually, there’s an intermediate glacier somewhere in there where the lagoon interfaces, but the name of that one is even more unpronounceable to someone not familiar with Icelandic. The lagoon is less than 100 years old but it is already the deepest lake in Iceland, almost 250 meters deep at its deepest point. It has increased in size fourfold in the last 50 years, a depressing reminder of climate change. When the melting icebergs are small enough, they float out to the Atlantic Ocean, a few hundred yards away. There, some of them are tossed by the tide back onto the sand, creating “Diamond Beach.” It’s all very lovely and somewhat ethereal, especially if you can forget for a time that future generations may not get to enjoy it as we do.
Once you’re in the countryside, you simply can’t get away from gorgeous, otherworldly scenery every place you look. I wonder if Icelanders take it for granted or if at least sometimes they walk out their back door and marvel at the waterfall they have practically in their back yard. We got to go off road when we took a glacier hike on and around Sólheimajökull glacier to a small ice cave. Off-road vehicles for groups have some of the biggest, fattest tires I’ve ever seen, and when the driver shifts gears, the engine makes really determined, “Yes, I CAN do this!” grinding noises that would seriously alarm me if I had to pay to have the thing serviced. They got us over some pretty rough terrain. At one stop, our guide showed us what had been an ice cave until a few days earlier, when the entrance collapsed. The glacier is always moving, growing and receding. In recent years, of course, the receding part has been going much faster. This particular glacier is a small offshoot, as it were, of Mýrdalsjökull, the glacier that covers the Katla volcano. Our guide mentioned casually that the volcano is about 50 years overdue for a major eruption. When it finally erupts strongly enough for the magma to break through the ice cap, the heat will cause a huge, very rapid glacier melt (over perhaps a few hours), resulting in powerful flood waters. Too bad they don’t know which way those waters will go until it happens, but there were no reported fatalities in the last major eruption in 1918, so apparently farmers had enough notice that they were able to evacuate. I was tired enough that night that the thought of getting swept out to sea by icy flood waters didn’t keep me awake.
On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at Thingvellir National Park. Iceland’s first general assembly, the oldest in the world, met here for the first time in 930. The presiding officer was the law speaker. Elected for a term of three years, the law speaker had the scintillating duty of memorizing all the country’s laws, and every summer, he had to recite the procedural rules. As I pondered this, I wondered whether some bored member of the assembly ever tried to mess with the law speaker: “I don’t think that’s right” or “Man, we changed that law last fall” or if indeed, there was a law against interrupting the law speaker when he was reciting. Thingvellir is also where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. In the larger sense, the drifting apart of these plates is what causes Iceland’s geothermal and earthquake activity, but particularly impressive fissures can be seen as you drive through the park.
A lot of people have asked me about the weather. Reykjavik is the world’s northernmost capital city, and the island just touches the Artic Circle. That being said, it was the end of summer. The temperature was in the low 50s Fahrenheit (around 12 Celcius), and was remarkably consistent between daytime and nighttime hours. Wind and rain, of course, made it feel colder, as did being on top of an iceberg or in a boat. Just about every place I’ve ever been, the locals are fond of saying, “If you don’t like the weather here, wait five minutes and it will change.” In Iceland, this is really true. Really, really true. If you rent a car, you’ll be advised to park facing into the wind so that it doesn’t damage the car door as you open it. If you think they’re kidding, they aren’t. The wind almost took me off my feet my first day there. I assume this is at least one of the reasons the weather can change so fast.
If I could only give once piece of advice, it’s this: always go for the smaller boat. For both the glacier lagoon and for a whale watching tour that we took, we had a choice of boats, and we booked the smaller ones that got us closer to what we wanted to see. I was really glad that we did. At the glacier lagoon, we were able to get quite close to some of the larger icebergs that the bigger boats couldn’t approach. On the whale watching adventure, a pod of dolphins came up and surrounded our boat, as if saying “hi and welcome.” I could actually feel a couple of them bumping the bottom. PJ and I were in the front, and a couple of times, a wave came over the side, and we got sort of wet, and it was glorious.
Almost every place that we go, we say that we’d love to go back. We rarely make it back, not because we don’t want to, but because there are always new places to see that we’ve never been. We would both love to go back to Iceland and this time, I think we might really mean it.