Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Eating a Sheep's Head and the Blue Lagoon

Our last full day in Iceland we kept the rental car one more day and mopped up our shopping errands. Christmas combined with pretty short store opening hours in general meant we hadn't really bought anything to take home yet.

First we went to the mall. Our hope was to avoid the tourist prices that were probably lurking in the tiny little shops by our hotel. Unfortunately most of the mall was imported stuff that wasn't that interesting. The whole point was to buy Icelandic-looking stuff!

66° North is an Icelandic clothing company which had really cool billboards all over town. When we found their store at the mall, though, it was super expensive. One camo jacket that I thought looked cool was $550.

 Vínbúðin is the only place one can buy packaged alcohol in the country, and it is state owned. Their hours aren't very long, and there were probably 15-20 waiting for it to open at 11:00. Whether because of this Soviet arrangement or taxes, buying alcohol is ridiculous in Iceland. A 750ml bottle of Captain Morgan cost 5690 Icelandic Krona, or about $44.47. No thanks!

 This Duff Beer of Simpsons fame is the only little thing I bought. Apparently the reason this isn't available in the US is that it is unlicensed. It looks like the German company who makes this is getting the soul sued out of them currently.

With our mall trip mostly a fail, we went back to the little shops of downtown Reykjavik.

 The typical Icelandic wool sweater pattern is displayed on the two white ones. They were pretty expensive as well. I asked a store clerk at one point where we could find less expensive clothes. I thought surely that locals wouldn't pay these sorts of prices for things. She said that personally she saves up and then goes clothes shopping in the US. God bless America.

After shopping we stopped by one of the several public hot tub places in Reykjavik. It was super cold and windy, so the walk to the hot tubs was uncomfortable, but once inside it was quite nice. They had a heated lap pool as well. There was a water slide but it was a far enough walk from the safety of the heated pools that we couldn't risk it.

It was at this point Lydia started complaining that she hadn't eaten anything repulsive in a few hours. I did my best to fix that problem. Svið is a traditional dish consisting of a sheep's head singed to remove the hair, boiled, and then cut in half. At the BSÍ central bus station cafe, this plus two sides can be had for the low price of 1650 Krona, or about $12.78. What a deal.

Its tongue was still in its mouth.

We had some edible food for dinner later on. This was hashed fish with black bread. 

At the end of the day it was time to return our faithful rental car. It was Škoda branded.

Kind of cool battle scene on the hotel lobby wall.

The next morning it was time for us to depart. Our flight was pretty late in the day though, so our tour company took us to the Blue Lagoon first. On the drive we encountered a police car blocking the entire highway. We had to take some side road around the highway, and while driving our tour guide stated that the road was closed because a different bus from our same company had caught fire in the middle of the highway. No one was apparently hurt, and on the bright side he said that they would probably now be able to buy a new bus. Comforting.

The Blue Lagoon is pretty much the biggest tourist trap in Iceland. It's an interesting place, plus it is near the airport which makes it a convenient stop.

At the airport there was some more opportunities for Yule Lad activities. Turns out the airport is tax free even for Icelanders, which meant they were buying alcohol and other luxuries there like crazy.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

An Icelandic Roadtrip: Journey to the Center of the Snow

Lydia tapped out the following on her iPhone during the flight home. I was pretty impressed.

John, being more brave than I, suggested that we rent a car for a few days and explore Iceland on our own.  Although I was nervous about driving through ice, snow, and wind (especially after my trip last summer which you can read about here) in a foreign country, he convinced me to adopt a more adventurous spirit and off we went.

View Iceland Road Trip in a larger map 
This trip plus the bit of bus touring covered about half of the Ring Road that circles the country.

As a reference, this pretty amusing notice was attached to the rental car's steering wheel.

We began our journey in the dark (luckily it only took us 5 minutes of city driving to realize we had the headlights only partially on) and headed north towards Akureyri.

Akureyri is about 250 miles north of Reykjavik and the country's second largest city with 17,500 inhabitants.  As the sun began to rise around 10:30, we decided it was time for our first stop.  Looking to our guide book for a little direction, we decided to stop in Borgarnes.  This quaint town on the sea is best known for its Settlement Centre featuring information about the history of Iceland and exhibits about one of the Icelandic sagas.  It was well worth the stop!

The museum was very modern with interactive exhibits and eccentric artwork.  I think the most interesting thing we learned was that at one point in history, the Nordic people were influential all throughout Europe.  For example, Normandy, France, aka "northman" was so named because of the large number of Nordic inhabitants.

This picture illustrates the enormous influence of the Nordics on the rest of Europe.

The exhibits about the saga were also cool, but a little difficult to follow due to the confusing Icelandic names.   The Icelandic people follow the old Nordic system of naming which you can read about here. Basically, this means that everyone's name sounds the same.

Even the gift shop was cool.

After exploring the museum we ate lunch in the adjoining restaurant.  We had the lunch buffet, and it was delicious!  John especially liked the broccoli-celery soup.  It was unique in that it was quite spicy (I'm not sure I've ever had spicy soup before.) Overall John says the soups in Iceland were impressive. And although I'm not really a big soup eater, I'd have to agree.

  A large number of the windows in Iceland had these in them, which I think is an Advent thing?

The rest of the afternoon was spent driving through snowy Iceland.  Overall, the drive was pretty uneventful.  The drive is probably more interesting in the summer months when you can see the grass, fauna, and lava fields.  Unfortunately,  the snow made it all look the same.

We did make a stop at a gas station, where we purchased some delicious candy.

Afterwards, we decided to make a quick stop in Skagastrond, the country music capital of Iceland.  (Yes, you read that correctly, Iceland has a country music capital.)  Unfortunately, the bar was closed, so we took a few pictures and headed out.

The local church looked like a space ship from Battlestar Galactica.

We made it to Akureyri around 6, just in time for dinner.  We went to a local restaurant Bautinn, once again suggested by our guidebook.  I had some delicious fish, and John had lamb. I didn't realize it at the time, but according to John, the locals sitting behind us had a lively discussion about us as they ate.  It's times like these that I wish I spoke Icelandic!

The produce in Iceland often left something to be desired.

Paper towels featuring the Yule Lads from last post. 

Although we had originally planned to drive back to Reykjavik, it got too late and we decided to stay in Akureyri for the night.  After a failed attempt at tasting "Iceland's Best Ice Cream" (they were still closed for Christmas on the 27th!), we had a great time exploring the local night life.  We found a bar hosting trivia night, but unfortunately it was in Icelandic, so we just observed.  Very fun!

The next morning we woke up early and headed back south.  On the way home we planned to stop by Snæfellsjökull, the setting for Jules Vern's Journey to the Center of the Earth.  Little did we know, we were in for quite the journey of our own.

As the sun rose early in the morning, we noticed that it was very cloudy.  It was weird because the sky and the ground were both so white, that they blended into one.  Later, it started to snow.  It got pretty real.

For lunch we stopped at Fimm Fiskar in the town of Stykkishólmur.  At this point we considered ditching our plan, and driving back to Reykjavik.  We asked our waiter about the weather conditions, (keep in mind it's freezing rain outside and had been heavily snowing), and he told us, "today is very nice, just a little rain, tomorrow we are expecting a storm.". I was ready to give-in to the weather, but John insisted that we continue.  I believe his exact phrase was "Snæfellsjökull or die!" (editor's note: I think it's clear I didn't say this because there's no way in hell I would try to pronounce that word.)

We read that sheep in the road was going to be a problem in Iceland, but all the sheep and cows were inside for the winter. The only animal left out were the poor horses.

After another hour or two of scary driving, we finally made it.  The lava fields in the park were really cool; they made the treacherous drive worth it.  On the drive back, we drove along the southern coast of the fjord, and fortunately the snow turned into rain for a little while.

This was the most we saw of Snæfellsjökull due to the fog.

We eventually made it safely back to our hotel in Reykjavik.  We tried to go out to dinner that night, but after walking a block in the windy snow, we decided to stay in and order Dominoes.  Good choice if you ask me!

We washed down our pizza with some of this Christmasy drink. Egils Malt og Appelsín is half non-alcoholic malt and half orange soda. It was good, but rich enough that half a can was enough for each of us.