Sunday, June 14, 2015

Icelandic Saga: Part 1

I was lucky enough to enjoy a late spring trip to Iceland with my family.  Midnight sun, whales, puffins, hot springs, glaciers, and waterfalls; oh my!  It's going to take several blog entries just to report the highlights.  I'll be processing the imagery for months in my dreams and through painting. 

Many tourists zip around the entire "Ring Road" encircling the country, but we opted to spend a week based in Reykjavk, taking day trips, and a week on the South Coast. The population of the whole country is about 330,000, and 119,000 live in Rekjavik.  The rest of Iceland is rural, with tiny towns of only a few farms, and villages with a grocery store, church, clinic, and gas station.  My teenager told me that if I said pastoral or bucolic one more time she was going to slap me. 

We stayed in a refurbished loft apartment in the heart of Reykjavik.  Our landlord was still refurbishing when we got there.  Because a few minor details we did not even notice remained undone, he gave my teenager her own adjacent loft apartment, rent free, to everyone's delight. 

There is swell street art everywhere in Reykjavik, some of it legal. 
























Cats own the town. 



People told us the cats were strays, but they were mostly fat and wearing collars.  

We found our way on foot through shoulder-to-haunch cats to a swimming beach.  Yes, a swimming beach, in Iceland.  A brilliant local designed it in 2008, walling off a nano-bit of the bay with lava rocks (deposited  everywhere from erupting volcanoes), and intermingling natural geothermal hot water with the sea water.  The city imported a few tons of Moroccan sand to complete the scene. There are also hot pots there, so that one can cook oneself in preparation for a brisk dip.  It was a chilly spring, even by local standards, and folks were out in their parkas with the whole family in tow, grilling ubiquitous Icelandic hot dogs at the beach.      

Reykjavik is a great coffee town--not a bad cup to be had--but not a vegan paradise.  

Minke whale, reindeer, formerly adorable puffins & baby sheep are what's on the menu.  Iceland stopped hunting whales and then started again, reportedly to serve it up in tourist restaurants.  If you go, enjoy the whales from a kayak, not on your plate, and let them know that eating whale is not an integral part of the tourist experience.  

There is a great contemporary art museum in Reykjavik.  More about that in a later entry.

Our first foray out of Reykjavik in our trusty rent-a-wreck was a tour through nearby ├×ingvellir National Park . . .


and the Golden Circle, featuring Europe's largest waterfall, Gulfoss, which is something like the Taos Box + Niagara, and the original Geyser, which gave the word to the English language.  






We enjoyed the isolated expansive beauty mostly from inside the rent-a-wreck with 30 mph winds raging.  A light breeze by local standards. 

The hot pools in a small geothermal town on our way back to Reykjavik were perhaps the best sensory part of the tour.  The locals there were growing cherries in geothermal greenhouses & selling them to tourists for a buck a piece.  And big honking raspberries.


Many little towns have naturally hot swimming pool complexes.  Some have hot pots of varying temperatures for bathing.  Reykjavik has one with a monumental internally LED lit water slide, volleyball courts, steam rooms, and a massage therapist.  Locals hang out in these pools in the long summer evenings, and probably for much of the winter.  It's a great social scene, with no phones or devices isolating people.  No wonder they pulled off a 27-union national workers' movement whose demands were met while we were there.  They are all hanging out actually talking to each other in the hot pools.



They cut down all of the trees in Iceland a long time ago, but now they realize the error of their axes and have launched a national tree-planting love fest.  Hardy little birch and evergreens are braving the wind along every roadside.  The government hands out plaques to tree planters. The US Forest Service should be sent to Iceland to learn the value of trees.
Because I never miss an opportunity to see whales, we donned full body parkas that double as flotation suits and set out on the Atlantic, whale watching.  
Above: the Harpa (Reykjavik) Concert Hall & Cultural Center, from the harbor.


It was actually the warmest sunniest day of our trip (not very).  And winds at only 10-15 mph.  We were rewarded with a visit from 2 minke whales calmly hanging out, diving, and feeding.   
Later, on the way home from fabulous hot pools, we caught a brilliant sunset over the bay,  the 1st real sunset we saw in Iceland.  
It never gets dark--except for the entire winter.  The summer sun fades into twilight, and five minutes later, around 3:30 a.m., the sun rises again.  But when there is a fabulous sunset, it lasts for hours.  It morphed and reflected off the still bay from 10:00  until after midnight.  
Oh, did I mention that I'm changing my name to Halldor?   I love the Icelandic language even as I daily butcher it.  Better butcher a language than a whale, I always say.  

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