Cheese Sandwiches, Kaffi, and the Gates of Hell


Sunday May 19,1996

The Hotel Leifur Eiriksson proved easy to find. It is across the street from Hallgrimskirkja, a huge modern concrete cathedral on top of a hill. You can see it from 20 kilometers away! We had our first of many cheese sandwiches for breakfast and set out to explore the old city of Reykjavik. We walked for hours by the harbor just getting used to the idea of being in Iceland and trying hard to stay awake to adjust to the time difference. By the end of our walk I was exhausted -- and totally in love with Reykjavik. Early Sunday morning is the best time to fall in love with a city, and Reyjavik on a sunny, breezy Sunday morning is irresistible.

I tentatively identified my first Arctic Tern as we walked along a well-kept paved walkway next to the harbor. (I hadn't bought Guide to the Birds of Iceland yet.)

Simple things like a woman in a teal blue jacket sitting on a stone wall next to a green vertical sculpture overlooking the harbor just blew me away visually. I was to have overwhelming visual experiences for the whole rest of the trip.

I failed in my goal to stay awake and after lunch went to sleep. Nancy woke me hours later to tell me she had walked down Laugavegur to Mal og Menning, the bookstore I had been corresponding with before the trip, for a good browse. I conversed with her in a half-sleep and she went off to get dinner while I slept on til morning.

The Golden Circle Tour

Monday May 20, 1996

First thing Monday morning, we did the typical tourist thing, the "Golden Circle" tour to Skalholt, Hveragerdi, Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir. Our tour guide, Asta, was reserved but knowledgeable. The tour was conducted in English although besides Nancy & me there was only one other native English speaker on the bus (a Britsh woman from the Midlands). Everybody seemed to have enough English to follow it though.


First stop, Skalholt. Site of the first bishopric established in Iceland. Great mosaic over the altar. Nice stained glass windows. The last Catholic bishop in Iceland was beheaded here during the Reformation. I guess the Reformation didn't go as peacefully as the inital conversion to Christianity in 1000.


Hveragerdi is mainly a tourist trap. Well, actually Eden - the tour stop - was a tourist trap. The geothermally heated greenhouses were pretty neat. It was a real trip to see bananas and coffee growing in Iceland! Unfortunately, the Eden stop seemed to be designed to make us buy souvenirs out of sheer boredom. I would've preferred a scientific lecture on the greenhouses or at least a tour instead of being turned loose in the shop and having to thread my way thru kitsch to get to the interesting parts. By the way, when did Vikings become cute? Cuddly Vikings? These are the guys that marauded Europe for centuries bent on world domination. I had no trouble resisting the "Curly Canute" Viking dolls.


The two-tiered waterfall at Gullfoss narrowly escaped becoming a hydroelectric power plant. It would've been a shame if it had, because it is stunningly beautiful. The woman conservationist who saved Gullfoss is commemorated with a plaque overlooking the falls. The face on the plaque looks positively visionary.


I have such a compelling attraction to boiling mud, plumes of steam coming out of the ground, and hot water that Nancy diagnosed me with "subclinical red rock fever". Geysir is the namesake of geysers everywhere. Plenty of steam, plenty of boiling mud, and hot water here. Strokkur erupts about every five minutes. Geysir itself doesn't erupt anymore but is still plenty hot. The tour stopped longest here, with a lunch break. Most people passed on the "special deal" on a salmon dinner at the hotel and opted for sandwiches at the petrol station nearby. Petrol stations double as restaurants all along the Ring Road and elsewhere in Iceland. The fare seems to be pretty much hot dogs, cheese sandwiches, ham & cheese sandwiches, and the ubiquitous kaffi. I devoured a cheese sandwich and kaffi and used the rest of my lunch break to take more more more pictures of Strokkur, Litli Geysir, and boiling mud.


This is the place we both wanted most to see and the place the tour spent the least time. Thingvellir resonates with history and with the power of the earth. Here, where the crack that runs through Iceland is most dramatically visible, the Norse settlers established the first parliament (thing) in 930. They may not have known anything about plate tectonics but they sure picked a dramatic spot. You can see the earth pulling apart at the plate boundary creating a huge rift lined with dramatic fissures. We reserved a day later in our stay for a deeper experience of this place.


Tuesday May 21

We came down at the tail end of breakfast. The hotel was out of those little hard rolls to put the cheese on at breakfast! Cheese sandwiches are just not the same on ordinary slices of bread. A German gentleman asks the front desk if they can get more of "those rolls" and gets a negative answer. I'm glad he asked because it saved us from appearing like loud demanding Americans (evidently a plague upon the hotel if you believe the entries in the Gestabok).

After breakfast, we walked to Tjorn to see the ducks. I spotted a mallard couple with 10(!) ducklings zipping along behind them and peeping loudly. One of them got separated from the flock and let out such a wrenching screech that any animal in the vicinity must have been filled with maternal anxieties for their young. Fortunately the little fuzzy one was reunited with the horde. We discovered tufted ducks, a European species not usually seen in North America, and fell in love with their black & white sporty good looks and zippy get up and go. We discovered Radhus, the cafe in City Hall with great kaffi and fabulous indoor birding.

Many cups of kaffi later (at Radhus and at Hvitakot where we went for our noon cheese sandwiches) we set off on our day's mission to Hafnarfjordur to see the alleged charming houses, the Post & Telcommunications Museum, and The Sufi - alleged to be the best coffeehouse in Iceland by at least one guidebook. Where is Hafnarfjordur on the map? A 15 minute drive from Reykjavik.

The Post & Telcommunications Museum was as advertised. Our host, Einar, has a sister who lives in Boston so was more talkative than most of the Icelanders we'd met so far. He gave a great tour of the museum including the White House hotline phone donated by Nixon. He also asked if we'd felt the earthquake this morning. Since it is traditional that I sleep thru at least one earthquake on all vacation trips, I had to admit I'd slept thru it. It was only a 3.something on the Richter scale so it's not like I slept thru the Big One or anything.

As for the architecture, Charming Houses. Not.

However, we did discover Tilveran, an excellent restaurant with entrees at less than 1000 IK and the willingness/ability to prepare vegetarian dishes besides cheese sandwiches. The pasta with veggies was excellent and Nancy raved about the fresh fish of the day. Tilveran was also the first place I noticed a baby carriage outside the restaurant - with the baby calmly sleeping in it - and the mother calmly knitting and drinking kaffi inside the restaurant. This would NEVER happen in the US. I noticed this phenomenon many more times even in downtown Reykjavik. Seated at a table next to us, a party of Americans who seemed to be from Boston (the boy was wearing a Red Sox hat and they were talking about the price of Celtics tickets) were deep in discussion about what wine to order with puffin.


The long hours of sunlight started to make me a little manic. Instead of going back to the hotel to watch one of 2 channels on tv, I wanted to see the countryside. Njardavik proved to have the charming houses we didn't see in Hafnarfjordur. When we stopped to photograph a traditional turf-roofed house, we discovered a pond full of eiders filling the evening with their moaning calls.


Grindavik proved to have some charming houses too, including a purple one, Charla. The church was brightly colored and looked like a child made it out of Lego. The sheep came close to the road and let me photograph them. It was lambing season and new ones were being born every day.

On the way back to Reykjavik we discovered the Blue Lagoon and decided to head there the next day for a swim.

The Blue Lagoon

Wednesday May 22

A three hour swim in the Blue Lagoon is enough to make ANYBODY relax. Even me. Even Nancy. Believe it or not, we met someone there from Rhode Island. In the tradition of Rhode Island as village, it turned out she knew someone who worked at Nancy's agency. We watched busloads of tour groups come and go. They stayed in exactly 30 minutes. No more. No less. We watched the steam from the power plant swirl around in complex patterns that made the grey and rainy skies look even more dramatic than usual. Nancy dubbed it "watching steam-o-vision".

The Road to Krisuvik

After our swim, we decided to drive south and east to see what we could see, with a tentative intention to see the geothermal area at Krisuvik. In Grindavik, we turned at a sign pointing to Krisuvik. The road wound along the coast afforfing stunning views at every curve. We stopped at a particularly picturesque farmhouse with lots of sheep and horses overlooking the ocean - also the only place with enough shoulder to pull off the road. As soon as I stepped out of the car I heard "kreeee-ah, kreeee-ah, kreeee-ah" all around me. Across the road from the farmhouse was a huge breeding colony of thousands of Artic Terns (Kria in Icelandic). I saw them mating, sitting on nests, courting, the whole deal. I stood there with my binoculars and just watched for ages. I tried to get close enough to photograph them but they are very aggressive in protecting their nests! This was the high point of the trip for me.

We finally left the terns and continued east along the increasingly narrow road. The pavement ended and the unpaved road got narrower still. Rocks flying up from under the car nearly broke the windshield (how would I explain that to the Hertz Vikings?). A few blind heights and 16% grades later, Nancy convinced me that even if this really was the road to Krisuvik, we should turn back before we totalled the car and got stranded in the middle of nowhere. Since my hands, arms, and shoulders were aching from gripping the steering wheel, I had to agree. We headed back to Hafnarfjordur for another dinner at Tilveran. On the way I spotted a sign for Krisuvik near the turnoff for Hafnarfjordur so we agreed to try it after supper.

The Other Road to Krisuvik

This road led past Lake Kleifarvatn and past a school for wayward boys (literally in the middle of nowhere - I don't see what possible trouble they could get into out there). We found Krisuvik - recognizable by the constant plume of steam visible from a long way away. Signs all around Krisuvik warn of the danger of steam eruptions. So much so that Nancy was terrified I would be burned or blown up or something and kept calling "Janet, come back" as I walked on the boardwalks trying to get some good pictures and satisfy my boiling mud/steam eruption needs.


Thursday May 23

We got up early despite the fact that Night Boy failed to give us the wakeup call. I was supposed to take a flight to Akureyri but missed it by a few minutes. I rebooked for Friday and decided to treat this as an opportunity instead of spending the day stewing over Night Boy's mistake. We had a good walk around the city, visited our friends the tufted ducks, shopped mainly for books. I bought the requisite Icelandic sweater.

At the tourist information office we found out about boat tours that as luck would have it run on Thursdays. We took a boat called Perla from the harbor to see Puffins. They are comical to the extreme. Built for launching themselves off the cliffs where their burrows are they nonetheless takeoff from the water, sometimes skimming the surface 3 or 4 times before they get airborne. Sometimes they don't make it into the air and they dive instead. The puffin population of Iceland is around 8 million. They were just returning from their migrations and establishing nests so we probably saw about a million on Lundey (lund is puffin, ey is island hence "puffin island").

Our boat captain pointed out Hofdi House where the Reagan-Gorbachev summit was held.

The Midge Place, the Gates of Hell, and Lava Bread

Friday May 24

On Friday, without any help from Night Boy, I caught the flight to Akureyri for the tour to Lake Myvatn.

Lake Myvatn is the third largest lake in Iceland. There are supposedly more ducks there in summer than anywhere else on the globe, 150.000 of them or so. Birders from Europe love it because some of the species of duck are found nowhere else in Europe. This is because they are North American species like the mallard duck, the Harlequin duck, and the common loon (for some reason called the Great Northern Diver in English and the Common Loon in American). It amused me to see people oohing and ahhing over the mallards. All I could think of was Make Way for Ducklings. I did enjoy the birding though and was happy to record my first Harlequin duck (they live here but I ain't seen 'em here.) I'll spare you my bird species list for now.

The first stop immediately became known to the tour group as "The Midge Place". We were swarmed with the small non-biting type of midges. They swirled around us in eddies like a fluid of some sort. I think I swallowed some. I know I inhaled some. Myvatn in fact means "midge lake" in Icelandic. I can see how it it got its name. The view of the lake and the pseudocraters from the midge place was lovely but we all retreated to the petrol station/snackbar for shelter from the midges.

Godafoss is the waterfall where the locals threw the Norse gods when Iceland converted enmasse to Christianity in 1000 by a peaceful decision at the Althing. Folks were still allowed to worhsip the pagan gods in private but the local farmer at Godafoss thought it best to get rid of them. No you can't see 'em in the water there.

We passed through the gates of hell to Viti. Actually, it was the gates of the geothermal plant, but Viti does mean Hell in Icelandic. At one time, Christendom believed Hell was in fact located in Iceland, but at Mt. Hekla not at Viti. The driver told some "going to hell" jokes and I can't remember a one right now. My insatiable need to see steam, boiling mud, and sulphur pits was almost satisfied.

Our last stop was Dimmuborgir (the dark city or the black catstles). According to our guide the spooky lava formations are trolls who were caught by the sunrise after a long night of partying and turned to stone where they stood. Stories about the trolls and the huldufolk abound. Our guide told us the following story of the origin of huldufolk (hidden folk that live in the rocks.)."The Huldufolk were created when Adam and Eve were still in Pardise. One day God decided to pay them a visit. Eve found out that God was on his way, so she started to wash all her children, but she couldn't finish washing them all, so she hid them. When God came he asked if the children that she showed him were all the children that she owned, and Eve said they were. Then God said that he knew that she was lying, and since she felt that her dirty children were not good enough to show him, he decided that nobody should be able to see them, and made them invisible. The Huldufolk can decide if they want you to see them or not."

In Search of Snorri

Saturday May 25

Snorri left his wife at Borg and went to Reykholt to write the sagas. We drove from Reykjavik to Borg by way of Akranes and Borgarnes, stopping at Skallagrim's (father of Egil of Egil's saga) burial mound. It was cold and windy, the views of the fjord were beautiful , and we got to Borg with PLENTY of daylight left. We noted that Egil lamenting the death of his son seems to be a theme in Icelandic art as a relief at Skallagrim's burial mound and a modern sculpture at Borg had differing takes on it.

On the way from Borg to Reykholt we stopped at Deildartunguhver. Talk about spurts of boiling water! Deildartunguhver in Borgarfjordur, releases 250 l/sec of 100 C hot water. That's hot! Nancy was again convinced I would be boiled. It was something to see Europe's (the world's?) most powerful hot spring spurting liter upon liter of water into the sky.

At Reykholt we took each other's photos standing in front of the larger than life statue of Snorri and we driven back into the car by the wind. It was enough for us to know that Snorri had written the sagas there and died there (political assassination).

Return to Thingvellir

Sunday May 26

The Golden circle Tour didn't spend enough time at Thingvellir, which was one of the major attractions for us, so we decided to go back on Sunday on our own mainly to see the "booth" sites. The Thing usually lasted for a couple of weeks and participants set up booths where they sold food, writing vellum, trade goods, etc. and entertained suitors for their daughters, and transacted whatever all business in addition to the official business of the thing. The sites of many of these have been identified and markers placed. We found several of them but not Snorri's. It gave the place a whole different feel being able to picture what it might have been like to be there. I stood on the walkway by the "logberg" and pretended to be the lawspeaker, proclaiming the important Icelandic laws such as "No Smoking" and "No Parking", which seemed to be the most common in Reykjavik :-). Three local women sitting on the grass laughed appreciatively at my hammy performance. Speaking of ham, where do they hide their pigs? Every restaurant and petrol station sells ham and cheese sandwiches but we never saw a single pig on any farm - only cows and sheep and horses. Either the sheep morph into pigs when we're not looking or the pigs are a form of huldu folk.

We stopped at the Hotel Vallholt (named after Snorri's booth) for lunch and discovered we were too late for Sunday brunch and too early for dinner. They were only serving dessert. NNot even the ubiquitous cheese sandwiches (with or without ham). The tables were set with crisp white tablecloths and fresh roses in glass vases. The sunlight through the windows cast lit up the roses like jewels and cast perfect rose shadows on the white tablecloths. Dessert of traditional Icelandic pancakes, skyr with bilberries, and kaffi set us back $36! Must be the expense of keeping the tablecloths white.

Saying "Bless bless" to the Tufted Ducks

Monday May 27

Monday was our day to say goodbye to Reykjavik, the city we were by then both hopelessly in love with. The tufted ducks, the kids with duck bread, the kaffi at Radhus, the cheese sandwiches at Hvitakot, the whooper swans, the eiders, the greylag geese, the mallards, the scaup. I was bent on getting a really good photo of the tufted ducks' sporty little crests and spent nearly a whole 36 exposure roll of film on them. We sat sipping coffee at our table at Radhus and watched them from indoors too. The wind was so strong their little crests were blowing around like the hair on blonde models in car commercials. Those little guys are kinda sexy with their windblown locks!

Icelandic for goodbye is "Bless bless", which seemed a fitting thing to say to our little friends the skufonds (Icelandic for tufted duck).

And the Luggage Goes 'Round and 'Round

It was windy and cold at Keflavik. I bundled up in my Icelandic sweater, my Polartec pullover, and my wool jacket. This was great for walking from the car to the terminal but sweltering for dealing with the Hertz Vikings who couldn't fathom that the previous Hertz Viking had upgraded me at no extra charge. It took about an hour for her to finally confirm that I didn't owe any extra for the upgrade. By that time it was too late for Nancy and I to get seat assignments together and I was so hot, tired, and generally unready to go home that I impulsively put most of my layers (except the sweater) in my carryon bag and checked the carryon bag. I have never done that in my life. I always pack the things I don't want to lose in the carryon and check the dirty laundry, easily replaceable stuff etc. But I was not thinking straight.

Back at Logan I waited endlessly for my carryon bag to come around on the carousel. Nancy had all her luggage and I had my other bag. Finally, there's hardly anything left on the carousel and I spot a black Jansport backpack so I grab it. I go to put it on and can't figure out why I am having so much trouble getting the straps over my shoulders. Is it possible my shoulder has stiffened up or something? Finally get it on. Walk to the garage to bring the car around to get Nancy and the rest of the luggage. Get to the car. Reach into the backpack to the zipped pocket where I always keep my keys. No keys. Only paper. Thinking I must've spaced and put them in the main zip compartment I open that. Dirty towels. This is not my backpack. My life flashes before my eyes. Here I am in the garage with no car keys no house keys no 10 rolls of exposed film no Guide to the Birds of Iceland.... Granted I will miss Guide to the Birds of Iceland and can't replace the pictures but THE KEYS! Yikes. I begin the litany of self-hate. How could I have checked the bag with the keys in it? Why didn't I put the keys in my pocket? Etc. etc. etc. Back to the airline customer service desk I explain that this is not my backpack. They say there are no bags left from that flight. I give them the bag, rent a car from National which has the shortest line, drive to my friend Joan's house to get the spare keys she's been using to feed and administer Wilbur . She is surprised to see me. I call the airline again. they say call back in the morning.

In the morning, I call and they say my backpack has been found and they will deliver it. They'll call me with the arrangements. After therapy and lunch still no call from them and no backpack. Since I have to drive to the airport to return the car to National anyway, I go to the desk and they are so busy ticketing passengers they have no time for me. I open the gate and start to walk behind the counter to the office. Suddenly 3 people are falling over themselves to help me. One retrieves the backpack, which is indeed mine, and we all lived happily ever after.

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